Tuesday, December 26, 2006

More About JB

Greg Kot has an excellent tribute to James Brown, including an impressive list of hit singles spanning four decades. If you don't know why JB matters, and why so many music fans are mourning today, you should read it. It's a shame that younger generations know him better for substance abuse and prison time than for his music and lyrics.

The Swamp blog reports President Bush's message about JB:
Laura and I are saddened by the death of James Brown. For half a century, the innovative talent of the "Godfather of Soul" enriched our culture and influenced generations of musicians. An American original, his fans came from all walks of life and backgrounds. James Brown's family and friends are in our thoughts and prayers this Christmas.
While I'm glad Bush took the time to remember and honor the man (see, I can say something nice about the president), I can't help thinking of the Neil Young song "Campaigner" with the lyric "where even Richard Nixon has got soul." For some reason, I just can't imagine GWB gettin' funky to JB's grooves!

Monday, December 25, 2006

"Do you see the light?"

R.I.P. James Brown: Godfather of Soul, Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and Reverend Cleophus James in The Blues Brothers.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bastard of the Day

The death of Augusto Pinochet today marks the end of a consummate bastard's life. Of course he was "our" bastard, a man supported by the U.S. government merely because he wasn't a communist. Marxist Salvador Allende had been democratically elected in 1970 and made Pinochet commander of the army. The C.I.A., feeding on Cold War paranoia, strived to destabilize Chile, leading to the military coup that put Pinochet in charge in September 1973. The general celebrated his newfound power a few weeks later with the Caravan of Death, a helicopter sweep of the nation's military prisons that executed about 70 prisoners. It's hard to imagine Chileans being any worse off with a socialist regime than they were under Pinochet's rule from 1973 to 1990:
A government commission estimated that more than 3,000 people died or disappeared at the hands of the Pinochet regime. Thousands more were politically persecuted, some detained and tortured, others exiled, and still more harassed by secret police.
If that isn't enough to convince you, perhaps his numerous foreign bank accounts containing $26 million purloined from his own people will. Pinochet belongs in the Bastard Hall of Fame.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Today's bastard is the woman who was in front of me in the checkout lane at the grocery store. I finished unloading my cart onto the conveyor belt as the clerk finished ringing up her order. "That's 62 dollars and 37 cents," the clerk said.

The woman in front of me said something and disappeared into the crowd. "She needs to get money out of the ATM," the clerk explained. If I hadn't already unloaded my cart, I would have bolted for the next lane.

Seconds turned to minutes turned to hours, or perhaps I'm exaggerating. At any rate, the woman came back and announced that she had to take something out of her bags because she didn't have the money in her bank account. So what did she take out? One of those stupid little impulse-buy books that they sell in the checkout lane. That reduced her total to $59.76, and apparently she had $60.

Look, you shouldn't be in the store unless you have a way to pay for your stuff. If you only have $60, then make sure you don't spend more than that. She should have told the clerk she didn't want that stupid book in the first place instead of wasting everyone's time while she ran to the ATM. Besides, if you don't have enough cash in your account to make a minimal withdrawal, shouldn't you already know that before you go to the ATM? If you're so broke that you don't have $10 or $20 (assuming that's the minimum) to take out, why are you buying extra crap in the first place? Her purchase could only be justified if the book were titled Money Management For Morons or How Not To Be An Idiot At The Grocery Store.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Roadtrip Notes

As I mentioned earlier, we just took a week-long trip to Texas and back, covering 3,000 in a rented Chrysler Sebring. We rented in Aurora since it would have cost three times as much to rent in Chicago, not to mention that the rental tax in Chicago is inflated to soak tourists. Our primary objective was to visit my wife's uncle in Dallas-Fort Worth, and our secondary goal was to visit Palo Duro Canyon, one of my favorite places on Earth.

To make a long story short, the visit to Palo Duro didn't work out, though we passed within 20 miles of the place. We were a bit too late in the season. On the bright side, I managed to visit 14 new counties in Texas and 20 new counties in Oklahoma, completing both. Now I have been to all 254 counties in the Lone Star State.

As for road food, we revisited a couple of regional favorites. First of all, anyone venturing to Oklahoma or northern Texas really ought to try Braum's. We've had their outstanding burgers before, but this time we ate breakfast there, too. The Johnsen men's love for Hardee's breakfast biscuits is legendary, but the Braum's equivalent puts them to shame. The biscuits are fluffier and much less greasy. The cheese is flavorful, a rarity among fast food joints (but after all, Braum's is a dairy). The egg layer is at least 50% thicker than at Hardee's. The meats are tasty as well, and even the sausage isn't greasy.

For a sit-down meal, I recommend another regional chain, The Kettle. I first discovered The Kettle during my 2003 tour of Texas, and this time we ate at the Plainview location. Dinner was so good that we went back for breakfast, a buffet that pleasantly lacked all the pitfalls of buffets (cold food, mystery foods, etc.).

I had the darnedest time staying awake while driving on this trip. Even when I thought I was well-rested, I found myself getting sleepy to the point where my eyes would lose focus and I'd start seeing double. It got so bad that I actually drank a cup of coffee on the way home. Not only do I hate coffee -- I've never ordered a cup before in my life -- but it's the first time I've had any caffeine in nearly four years. Even with that boost, I handed the keys to my wife two hours later and let her drive through southwestern Missouri (the best benefit of the Hertz Gold card is that spouses can drive for no extra charge).

Out With A Whimper

My last Biking Illinois signing event of the year was Thursday night, right after a whirlwind, 3,000-mile, 7-day roadtrip and right before Chicago's first major snowstorm of 2006. While we managed to race home ahead of the storm (it chased us all the way from Oklahoma), the inevitable blizzard hype scared away anyone who planned to come to the Local Authors Night at Barnes & Noble in Schaumburg. I was disappointed because I felt I had generated good publicity for this one. My invitations to bike clubs hadn't been acknowledged (so they may or may not have been passed along to members), but Daily Herald cycling columnist Todd Underwood mentioned the signing, as did the e-newsletter of Windy City Sports magazine.

Fortunately there were a lot of authors there despite the dearth of customers -- I think 80-90% of the books we sold that night were to each other! My wife bought Three Boys Missing by retired Chicago police officer James A. Jack. She also picked up First-Job Survival Guide and A Greyhound's Tale as Christmas gifts. I suggested a few copies of Dating Your Money for her financially aloof sister and friends, but she thought it would be mean.

In the absence of customers, I enjoyed talking to the other writers. My aunt and uncle came for moral support, but they were out of cycling friends to buy books for. One of the managers told me that my book had sold 15 copies there since spring, which he said is very good for a regional title. That made me feel a little better about only selling two books Thursday night.

Naturally, the storm didn't even start until one hour after the event concluded -- there had been plenty of time for anyone to come out for a book or two before it hit. So here's a big, sarcastic "thanks a lot" to the weather forecasters who scared the bejesus out of everyone and spoiled my signing.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

R.E.M.

I spent this morning gathering CDs for an impromptu roadtrip. I asked my wife if she had any requests.

Jokingly, she said, "Korn.... and what's that other band I have that you think sucks? Tool?"

I shot back, "Every CD you had before you met me sucks."

"But I had some R.E.M. CDs..."

"Okay, so you had a few R.E.M. albums and Appetite For Destruction, but other than that..." She also tried to get rid of those R.E.M. CDs -- the only reason we still have them is because I wanted to get rid of my vinyl copies.

Speaking of R.E.M., I have been enjoying the heck out of the recently released collection from their early years on I.R.S., And I Feel Fine. Ah, the good old days when Michael Stipe wasn't so damn weird. He even had a head full of hair. Best of all, that period ends before Green, which includes my least favorite R.E.M. song, "Stand." "Stand" makes "Shiny Happy People" sound deep, and it must have disgusted Sly Stone that it shares a title with one of his best songs.

The first time I listened to And I Feel Fine was on a midnight grocery run. I ended up driving all over the North Side until the first disc was finished. I was tempted to play the second, but it was already 2 AM so I went home.

Although R.E.M. made a couple of great albums after the I.R.S. days, I completely lost interest in the band when they released Monster. I'm still not sure why since I liked its predecessor, Automatic For The People. I guess their time for me had passed. Some bands are like that -- vitally important during a certain period of one's life, then cast aside. And I Feel Fine is a celebration of the years when R.E.M. mattered to me.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Catching Up on Biking Illinois

First, don't forget my upcoming signing at Barnes & Noble in Schaumburg on Thursday, November 30 at 7 PM. I have posted a flyer and a press release for the event, which includes other local authors covering a broad range of topics. I hope my northwest suburban friends and relatives will help spread the word!

It's been a while since I looked up Biking Illinois on Google. Here are a few of the new links I found:

  • Alice at Gaper's Block reviewed my book along with several other Illinois titles, including the venerable Off The Beaten Path.
  • My local bookstore, The Book Cellar, has been very supportive. They added Biking Illinois to their Web page of Chicago books.
  • My list of the best places to ride in Chicagoland besides the lakefront (North Branch Trail, Des Plaines River Trail (Lake County), Waterfall Glen, Fox River Trail, Moraine Hills, Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail, Busse Woods, Illinois Prairie Path, Salt Creek Trail) is still on the Chicago Tribune's Web site.
  • I enjoy seeing my book listed by libraries. I've lost track of which ones I've mentioned, but at least a dozen from all over the state come up on Google. It looks like the Chicago Public Library purchased quite a few copies! At this moment there are six copies checked out throughout the city, including one of the three carried by my local Sulzer Regional Library. My hometown Oswego Public Library has it, too.

Finally, I should mention that I switched to a new version of Blogger this weekend (coincidentally along with Internet Exploder 7.0), so now you can read all of my entries about Biking Illinois by clicking on the "Biking Illinois" label.

Bastard of the Day

As a criminal goofball Reaganite, Ollie North may seem like an obvious BotD candidate. But his recent "campaign appearance" in Nicaragua clinches it for him. Latin American history teacher/author Greg Grandin notes the irony of North's words:
The ex-Marine colonel told Nicaraguans that they had "suffered enough from the influence of outsiders" -- a remark meant to criticize Hugo Chávez's support for Ortega but that some, considering North's role in running the covert operation that illegally funded the anti-Sandinista Contras in the 1980s, must have mistaken for a confession.
Indeed, Latin America has suffered from the influence of outsiders ever since President James Monroe told Europeans to stay out of "our" hemisphere, especially after Teddy Roosevelt came along with his big stick. North's little scheme was only a brief --albeit shameful -- chapter in our Latin American meddling. For any American to fly down to Nicaragua and make a statement like that to the people takes chutzpah; for North to do it makes him a bastard.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Bastard of the Day

I haven't said much about President Bush recently. Call it bullshit fatigue -- the guy just wears me out. But his ludicrous campaign speeches lately have once again earned him the esteemed title of Bastard of the Day. Robert Parry describes and debunks a typical campaign stop with Bush preaching to the choir, as he always does (the opposition is weeded out by his handlers, another shining example of the freedom he espouses):

"In this new kind of war, we must be willing to question the enemy when we pick them up on the battlefield," Bush told a crowd in Sellersburg, Indiana, on Oct. 28, as if in the old kinds of wars, captured enemy troops weren't questioned. (They were questioned, but U.S. policy strictly forbade torturing or otherwise abusing them.)

Then, referring to the capture of alleged 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Bush said, "when we captured him, I said to the Central Intelligence Agency, why don't we find out what he knows in order to be able to protect America from another attack" -- as if CIA officers wouldn't have thought of that on their own.

Bush contrasted his eminently reasonable suggestions with crazy positions that he attributed to the Democrats, whom he claimed opposed detaining, questioning, trying and spying on terrorists.

"When it came time on whether to allow the Central Intelligence Agency to continue to detain and question terrorists, almost 80 percent of the House Democrats voted against it," Bush said, as the crowd booed the Democrats.

"When it came time to vote on whether the NSA [National Security Agency] should continue to monitor terrorist communications through the Terrorist Surveillance Program, almost 90 percent of House Democrats voted against it.

...(omitted call-and-response with crowd)...

But Bush knows the Democrats are not opposed to eavesdropping on terrorists, or detaining terrorists, or questioning terrorists, or bringing terrorists to trial.

What Democrats -- and many conservatives -- object to are Bush's methods: his tolerance of torture and other abusive interrogation techniques; his abrogation of habeas corpus rights to a fair trial; and his violation of constitutional safeguards and existing law, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which already gives the President broad powers to engage in electronic spying inside the United States, albeit with the approval of a special court.

The entire article is worth reading. I can only hope Americans will pull their heads out of their arses long enough to make the right decisions at the polls today. We've got to get those Repubastards out of power, and taking Congress back from them is the first step.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Today's bastard is the woman who reads TV ads for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Here in Chicagoland, her ads attack Melissa Bean and Tammy Duckworth. There seems to be at least one during every commercial break. While both parties employ ad readers with similar tonal qualities, the difference is that the Republican speaker punctuates each sentence with an obnoxious quiver of self-righteous indignation, as if she's so horrified by these radical women that she's about to burst into tears of woe for our wayward Congress (for what it's worth, neither Democratic candidate seems particularly radical to me). At one point I wanted to hunt down that bastardess and strangle her to death. I have since moderated my view -- I would merely rip out her larynx.

I've reached the point where I hardly care who wins on November 7 (especially since I can't vote for Bean or Duckworth anyway -- my congressional district is safely in the hands of Rahm Emanuel). I'll just be happy that I won't have to listen to those negative political ads anymore. Alas, 2008 is just around the corner, and I can only hope Chicago's mayoral election next year doesn't employ the same annoying tactics.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

"Flat as a Tire?" Ouch!

I got my first negative review on Amazon recently. Damn, is my writing really that terrible? The press has been positive, and I've talked to people at signing events who enjoy Biking Illinois: 60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides. That's why the virulent skewering from "BikeBuff" surprises me. A few things about the review hint that it might be a personal attack, but regardless, my book looks pretty awful with only one good review at Amazon to counter it.

I won't respond directly, but I'd like to remind everyone that there are plenty of great road rides in my book, too -- rides you won't find anywhere else (everyone asks me about the trails, but the roads took much more research). Also, no one should expect my bike path descriptions to be as detailed as those in Jim Hochgesang's excellent county books -- Biking Illinois covers the whole state, for goodness' sake!

I think Amazon customers deserve more than two reviews of my book. If you've read Biking Illinois, please write your own review at Amazon.com, good or bad. Thanks.

UPDATE 02/14/2007 - I don't know when it happened, but I noticed today that the negative review has been removed from Amazon.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bastard of the Day

There are bastards, and then there are sick bastards. Ronald Kuch of Saginaw, MI is a prime example of the latter. He was arrested last Friday for having sex with a dog. A dead dog. On the street. Within view of a day care center:
Troopers said a woman from the day care center called for animal control because there was a dead dog near the property that had been hit by a car several days earlier. Before officers could arrive, the man showed up and began engaging in sexual acts with the dog, police said. The animal control officer also reported seeing Kuch involved in the sex act and as he approached him, Kuch shoved him away and ran off.
They caught him, obviously. And yes, the dog had been dead for several days. But wait, it gets even worse. It was his girlfriend's dog. There's a breakup story you don't want to hear. "But you and Ron were such a cute couple. What happened?"

I cannot begin to comprehend what would possess a man to do such a thing. That's just wrong on so many levels. Why on Friday? Did something about the decaying animal make it more apppealing to Kuch after a few days had passed? What about the children? There's a law (at least in Illinois) that worsens penalties for drug crimes committed within so many feet of a school. Maybe there should be one for bestiality near a school or day care center. If you ask your congressman to pass such a law, he'll probably say, "But who would ever do that?" Well, now we know.
The official charge of crimes against nature carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. If the person is a repeat offender, the maximum is life in prison.
There's a thought. What if he's done this before? For the sake of the animal kingdom, I hope not. Just imagine the warm welcome he'll get in the state pen. "Whatcha in for?"

Sunday, October 22, 2006

So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star by Jacob Slichter

As drummer for Semisonic, Slichter experienced the full range of musical fortunes. The band had one of the biggest singles of 1998 ("Closing Time"), but their career quickly withered when they failed to produce another hit. Anyone who wants to know how the real world of rock & roll works must read this book.

As one would expect, Slichter describes getting a record deal, recording albums, shooting videos, and touring around the world. He also talks about how record label politics can affect a band's chances for success. But So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star is most illuminating when Slichter delves into aspects of the industry that the average fan doesn't think about: groveling for airplay before radio program directors, discovering the critical role of independent promoters (the modern, legal incarnation of payola), and learning how record companies minimize their risk -- practically every dollar spent on the band (including those payments to independent promoters) has to be earned back before the artists get paid a penny.

Slichter captures the exhilaration of being onstage in front of thousands of people along with the excitement of meeting and working with music legends like Carole King and the master of mastering, Bob Clearmountain. His description of touring is brilliantly written as a single day that shifts from venue to venue to illustrate the sameness of the routine. Finally, he recounts the painful unraveling of the band's prospects as their third album, Chemistry, fails to produce a hit.

Ironically, the book's only notable fault echoes Semisonic's -- timing. Much as Semisonic's clever pop rock was out of step with what was being played on the radio in their prime, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star was published as the Internet was becoming an integral part of music promotion, particularly for new bands (Slichter's mention of the Internet is limited to discussion forums). It's a shame the band and the book didn't come later -- the Internet may have helped the band overcome the "handicap" of not fitting into a radio station format, and the book wouldn't have become instantly dated. Nevertheless, the book is a great description of most of the music industry; it's just missing the Internet element.

Despite that fault, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star should be a required reality check for anyone who dreams of hitting the rock & roll jackpot.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Christmas Signing

I just scheduled my first Biking Illinois signing for the Christmas season. It's at a bookstore where I've spent many evenings, the Barnes & Noble on Golf Road in Schaumburg. My aunt and uncle live in Streamwood, so I stop at that bookstore on the way home from their house (note: B&N is open later on Sundays than the Borders down the road). It's a "local author night" with many participants, so I won't be giving a presentation, just signing books and talking one-on-one. The event is from 7 PM to 9 PM on Thursday, November 30.

So many authors say this that it's a cliche, but my book really does make a great Christmas gift. If you know someone in Illinois who rides a bicycle, you can't really go wrong with Biking Illinois. Besides, I've been signing books intended as Christmas gifts since August!

By the way, I recently added photos to my Web site from the "Moonshine Run" ride, and I should be adding a couple more rides in the next week. So keep checking BikingIllinois.com -- eventually I'll have photos from every ride there.

Monday, October 02, 2006

What Happened to Contractor Accountability?

This summer when the Kennedy Expressway was being resurfaced, the contractor scraped off the top layer of pavement and left sewer covers sticking up several inches without building small asphalt ramps around them. That makes for a bumpy ride on a city street, but at highway speeds it causes dangerous blowouts. IDOT tow trucks responded to more than 70 calls for tire and wheel damage, and no one knows how many more motorists exited the expressway and sought repairs on their own. Frankly, it is pure luck that someone wasn't killed by an out-of-control vehicle. Today's outrageous follow-up story should be getting lots of attention:
Illinois taxpayers will cover tens of thousands of dollars in repairs to vehicles that sustained tire and wheel damage due to exposed sewer covers during the Kennedy Expressway resurfacing project this summer, state transportation officials say. The decision by the Illinois Department of Transportation takes Plote Construction Inc. off the hook financially, even though IDOT determined that the Chicago-area road-builder was responsible for creating the hazard.
So the contractor was at fault, but we have to pay for their negligence? Surely there must be a good reason. An IDOT spokesman helpfully explained:
Because of the high-profile nature of this case, IDOT wanted to make an extra effort to monitor the [claims] process and make sure everyone gets all their questions answered and gets all the assistance they need.
In other words, "We know the contractor screwed up, but we can't trust them to make it right so we'll just pay for it ourselves." What the hell is going on here? The proper response would have been for IDOT to administer the claims and charge them back to Plote Construction. I can only hope that Plote is penalized in some way, or better yet, barred from any IDOT contracts. Otherwise, this sets an alarming precedent.

Bastard of the Day

I'm a couple of days late, but today's bastard has to be former Florida Congressman Mark Foley. While I feel sorry for the young men who had to endure this creep, I must admit it sets my heart atwitter to see another "family values" Republican publicly humiliated for his hypocritical duplicity.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Lyrics of the Day

I guess this is week-old news, but I just found out:
Singer and songwriter James McMurtry took home album of the year and song of the year honors, and veteran rocker Neil Young was named artist of the year Friday at the fifth annual Americana Honors and Awards... McMurtry, 44, won album of the year for Childish Things and song of the year for "We Can't Make It Here Anymore," a pointed commentary on the economy, war and other issues.
I've been a James McMurtry fan since his 1989 debut, Too Long In The Wasteland. In his honor, today's lyrics are from "We Can't Make It Here Anymore." The seven-minute song builds from seething anger to outrage. These words are toward the end:
Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin
Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I'm in
Should I hate 'em for having our jobs today
No I hate the men sent the jobs away
I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They've never known want, they'll never know need
Their shit don't stink and their kids won't bleed
Their kids won't bleed in the damn little war
And we can't make it here anymore

Will work for food, will die for oil
Will kill for power and to us the spoils
The billionaires get to pay less tax
The working poor get to fall through the cracks
Let 'em eat jellybeans, let 'em eat cake
Let 'em eat shit, whatever it takes
They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps
If they can't make it here anymore
Congratulations to McMurtry and Young, as well as the duo/group of the year, another favorite of mine, the Drive-By Truckers.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Life In The Fast Lane

Last night I was looking at EarthLink's Web site and noticed that they now offer 6.0Mbps DSL. I also saw that their regular monthly rate for my current service, 3.0Mbps DSL, is $34.95-$44.95. This came as a disturbing surprise since I have been paying $49.95. (Perhaps they just recently lowered the price and my next invoice would automatically reflect that, but somehow I doubt it.)

I called EarthLink today planning to ask first whether 6.0Mbps service is available here and second why I am paying $5 more than their Web site says I should for my current service. For once, I was pleased with the results of a call to customer service. Not only is 6.0Mbps DSL available in my area, but it's only $39.95. Finally, I don't have to listen to people with cable carry on about how their service is sooo much faster than DSL, and I still don't have to subscribe to cable TV. I didn't bother to compare that price with other providers, but it doesn't really matter since I don't want to change my e-mail addresses. So in three to five business days, I should have double the speed for ten bucks less per month!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

An Empire Of Wealth by John Steele Gordon

This book is far more interesting and engaging than one would expect from its subtitle, "The Epic History of American Economic Power." Economics isn't exactly the most colorful subject matter, but Gordon does a good job of making it not only entertaining, but also easy to read for those without background in the field. Gordon retells the familiar story of American history from an economic perspective. To every reader's relief, he does this without resorting to even one chart or graph. He also has a knack for injecting an interesting factoid or two whenever the story starts to drag a bit.

His description of early settlements and agriculture from an economic perspective sheds new light on the standard narrative. Gordon highlights and explains the wisdom of Alexander Hamilton's central bank, along with Andrew Jackson's foolishness in dismantling it and the economic instability its absence caused for decades afterward. He takes issue with the portrayal of men like Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan as "robber barons," observing that the original robber barons of medieval times were more like muggers who simply collected money, whereas Vanderbilt and Morgan created wealth and contributed to America's economic power. Gordon details the financial aspects of the Great Depression well, and he explains the tactics used by Hoover and Roosevelt to try to stabilize the economy. He tells how Donald Nelson, chairman of the War Production Board, "changed the world's largest capitalist economy into a centrally planned one," playing a critical role in winning World War II.

An Empire Of Wealth is not without flaws, though. Most glaring is Gordon's strong bias toward the East. The Midwest and the West are practically ignored. Chicago doesn't merit a mention until Samuel Insull's arrival in the 1890s. It seems peculiar that an American economic history would leave out a critical development like the Chicago Board of Trade and how it revolutionized commodity trading. Even the Great Depression is almost exclusively an east coast issue. The California Gold Rush and the first transcontinental railroad are just about the only economy-oriented events to occur west of the Mississippi by Gordon's reckoning.

Although the author's back-of-the-book material expresses distaste for partisan economic writing, Gordon contributes his share. In An Empire Of Wealth he makes several pointed jabs at Democrats, liberals, and especially "intellectuals." He uses a humorous, non-partisan quote from The Nation, and yet he needlessly brands the publication as "leftist." Toward the end of the book, he gives Reagan far more credit than he deserves for defeating inflation and the Soviet Union. At the same time, Gordon portrays the Democratic Congress negatively even though they implemented ideas credited to Reagan -- some of them during Carter's administration!

Gordon also makes the ridiculous claim that economic classes don't exist in America, contending that they are simply arbitrary definitions created by intellectuals. Here is one of his weakest supporting statements: "For generations now, more than 90 percent of Americans have defined themselves as 'middle class.'" Self-perception is notoriously flawed. Just look at polls where people overwhelmingly describe themselves as "good drivers" despite accident data to the contrary.

Alas, by its very nature, An Empire Of Wealth is the story of the victors of capitalism, not the victims or even the foot soldiers. And like most history books, it unravels a bit at the end -- it is impossible to put the events of recent decades into proper historical perspective. But from the arrival of the first Europeans to the 1970s, An Empire Of Wealth is a very informative and surprisingly entertaining book.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Great Retail Porn Cabal Exposed

If my recent musings about breasts, necrophilia, and Vagisil haven't made my mother proud of her blogging son, well, this won't either.

Recently, I was casually perusing the classified ads in the Chicago Reader when I saw this:
FINALLY, A JOB that will excite you! We are a national retail adult entertainment business looking for bright, creative and enthusiastic individuals to join our team. Sales Associates: Full- and part-time positions available. Starting pay $8/ hour, plus commissions. Applicants must be 21+ years of age. Apply in person Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm at one of our Chicago locations: Adult Fantasy, 2928 North Broadway; Erotic Warehouse, 1246 West Randolph; Frenchy's, 872 North State Street; Hubbard Books, 109 West Hubbard; Lamours, 3901 West Lawrence; Over 21, 1347 Wells; Wells Books, 178 North Wells. http://www.loversplayground.com/.
I was shocked. I always assumed that adult bookstores were independently owned, but apparently that retail sector has had its share of mergers and acquisitions over the years. I never would have guessed that the porn shop across the street from my friend Jean's condo, the porn shop I used to walk past on the way to work, and the porn shop by the Admiral Theatre were all tentacles of the same corporate beast.

A little research showed that Lover's Playground (LP) dominates several Illinois markets, particularly college towns. If University of Illinois sorority girls are looking for a gag gift, they'll probably find it at one of the three locations in Champaign-Urbana controlled by LP. Ditto for students from NIU (DeKalb's venerable Paperback Grotto) and ISU (Risque's on old Route 66 in Bloomington). Even Denmark II (the nearest porn shop to where I grew up) is just another cog in the great porn wheel of LP.

Alas, what has happened to the "mom and pop" porn shops?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Those Nutty Copywriters

Check out this advertisement for Vagisil from a recent Sunday coupon section:
Yeast infection itch?
It can take days to cure the infection.
But, with Vagisil...
...just minutes to relieve the itch.
Anytime. Anywhere.
Anytime? Anywhere? You're on a crowded bus. The woman next to you whips out a tube of Vagisil, squirts some on her finger, and plunges it you-know-where. You're in a business meeting. A colleague casually removes the packaging from a Vagisil anti-itch wipe and shoves her hand into her slacks. You're watching the WNBA. A player stops at midcourt and... Clearly this isn't the type of product that women are going to use without regard to their surroundings. I mean, it's not like taking a cough drop. What was the copywriter thinking?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Proud Parents

The word "necrophilia" in a newspaper headline always gets my attention. And mention of our Cheesehead neighbors to the north piques my interest. After all, Eddie Gein and Jeff Dahmer have given Wisconsinners a notorious reputation for defiling corpses. The TV show Picket Fences, set in Wisconsin, had a memorable episode in which a man kept his deceased bride in the closet, occasionally dancing around the room with her to "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."

In "Charges Dropped in Wis. Necrophilia Case," we learn that Wisconsin has no law against necrophilia. If you're filing that info away for future reference, well, I don't want to know about it. But another part of the story begs for comment:
Twins Nicholas and Alexander Grunke, 20, and Dustin Radke, 20, were arrested after an alleged attempt to dig up the body of a 20-year-old woman who was killed Aug. 27 in a motorcycle crash.
Yes, twins. Can you imagine how proud their parents must be, having two children who want to have sex with a corpse? If that doesn't inspire thousands to get vasectomies, I don't know what will.

Oops

Yesterday around 4:40 PM I decided to take the Netflix DVD we watched on Saturday night down to the post office. While talking to my wife, I grabbed the DVD and stuffed it into the envelope. It's only a five-minute walk to the post office, so I made it with ease.

This morning I got an e-mail message confirming that Netflix received my movie... except it was the movie we didn't watch, not the one we saw on Saturday. As Homer Simpson would say, "Doh!" Oh well, my wife didn't seem particularly enthusiastic about The World's Fastest Indian anyway, although I wanted to see it. I guess I'll have to put it in the queue again. And of course, I'll have to mail back the other DVD today. Surely I'm not the only person who's done this, am I?

Meanwhile, I've been preparing materials to apply for a writing assignment I've wanted since fifth grade. I hope to be making an announcement in a week or two; otherwise, I'll just post the writing sample I submitted (I'd hate to see it disappear into the 400 GB abyss of my hard drive).

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The End Of The Tour

Friday night at Barnes & Noble in Geneva marked the end of my summer book tour. That's a shame because my signings have been getting better and better.

I drove out of the city early to avoid the worst of Friday afternoon rush hour traffic. I ate dinner at Bennigan's, passing IHOP and Steak N Shake after the bad experiences I noted earlier on my tour. My monte cristo was especially greasy and sat in my belly like a sack of potatoes, but the hurricane I drank went down smoothly. If I hadn't been doing a book signing, I would have ordered another.

As usual, I got to the bookstore about 15 minutes early. The community relations manager (the B&N person who handles events) said my book has been selling very well lately. In fact, she panicked a bit last week when she was down to only one copy. Fortunately, more books came in time for my signing. She won my heart when she asked me up front to sign any left over books for stock (that's a vote of confidence -- it means, "I'm not going to ship them back the minute you walk out the door"). It was good that I came a few minutes early because there was a Winnie the Pooh storytelling event starting at the same time. She got me all set up and headed back to Pooh, checking up on me a few times throughout the evening.

A tandem-riding couple came in to buy my book and decided to get another for their son. Everyone who came in was enthusiastic. Oddly enough, they all shook my hand, too. My brother and my sister-in-law came to visit, keeping me company between signings. Later, my uncle stopped in briefly to buy a book. Over the course of two hours, I signed about eight books for customers, which was especially good considering how many copies had sold there in the weeks before my signing. Since no one mentioned the Fox Valley Bicycle and Ski Club or the QuavR Cycling Club although both publicized the event, I assume interested members bought their books beforehand. I signed about ten more copies for stock. The community relations manager said she was pleased. It was a far cry from the downstate double-debacle of Normal and Peoria exactly two months before.

I might do a couple of holiday signings (Biking Illinois makes a great gift!), and I'm already planning a spring book tour. My strong sales at Geneva should help me schedule more events at Barnes & Noble stores. In the meantime, a bike club has invited me to make a presentation at their monthly meeting, so I might do a winter speaking tour of some sort. I also have a (non-cycling) book proposal in the works.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Sometimes The Wrong Word Is The Right Word

Job listings often list the pay rate as "commensurate with experience." This morning I was looking at a listing for a technical writer at Dice.com:
Pay rate: Commiserate with exp
That describes most of the jobs I've had!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Chicagoland Lists

The Chicago Tribune published a bunch of lists today. I didn't read all of them, but I found two glaring omissions.

When I clicked on "Snifff! 8 great smells," I expected Blommer's Chocolate factory to be at the top of the list. When the wind is right, the smell of fresh baked brownies sweeps through the Loop and River North, a nice contrast to the stink of diesel exhaust (I am assuming Blommer's reopened after being cited for pollution violations -- cocoa particulates floating in the air, yum! -- a year or two ago).

Then when I saw "4 great restaurant bathrooms," I figured that the women's restroom at the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center just had to be on the list. Situated along an outside wall, it offers a breathtaking view of the city (a date invited me in to see it one night when there was no one else around). A tip for Chicago visitors: go to the Signature Lounge instead of the John Hancock Observatory. You get the great view plus drinks for the same price that less-informed tourists pay just to look. Incidentally, the Signature Lounge women's restroom is also at the top of my "blown opportunities for a memorable kiss" list.

The Tribune called for suggestions for other lists. Someone named Helen asked, "How about best places to ride your bike (BESIDES the lakefront)?" Since I have become a preeminent authority on where to ride a bike in Illinois, I had to respond. My book features 21 rides in northeastern Illinois, so I narrowed it down a bit. In no particular order:

  • North Branch Trail
  • Des Plaines River Trail (Lake County)
  • Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve
  • Fox River Trail
  • Moraine Hills State Park
  • Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail
  • Busse Woods
  • Illinois Prairie Path
  • Salt Creek Trail
  • Almost any street at 5:30 AM on a summer Sunday

That leaves out the hardcore mountain biking spots and specific road rides, but I figure most lakefront riders are more interested in bike paths than singletrack or roads anyway. Unfortunately, the Tribune's comment system only allows 300 characters, so I had to cut the last entry and shorten a few others.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Book Reviews! Book Reviews! Book Reviews!

My blogging has been sporadic because I've been reading a lot. These books deserve separate reviews, but I need to catch up...
  • Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson - For anyone who writes or simply loves language, this is a great book. Bryson wrote it when he was a newspaper editor, before he became a popular writer. He does not declare himself a linguistic expert; he wisely consults the works of others, sometimes tracking changes over the course of centuries. This book will help you distinguish between historic and historical, flaunt and flout, and many other oft-confused words. It also tells you that James Joyce's Finnegans Wake has no apostrophe. It is particularly ruthless in exposing tautological phrases and dead weight. I love this book -- it has earned a place on my desk.
  • Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John?: Music's Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed by Gavin Edwards - Edwards has been answering weird questions about rock and roll for many years, most notably in a column called "Rolling Stone Knows." If you've ever wondered how many states are mentioned in Bruce Springsteen songs, why Guns N' Roses named an album The Spaghetti Incident? (including the question mark), whatever happened to Cynthia Plaster Caster, or what the German-sounding phrase that introduces Def Leppard's "Rock of Ages" means, this book is for you. It's a quick and fun read that even a casual rock fan will enjoy (but the more you already know, the more questions will be relevant for you). Although it doesn't have an index, it does list sources in the endnotes for further reading.
  • Amarillo In August: An Author's Life On The Road by Jonathan Miller - I bought an autographed copy of this on vacation in Colorado. Miller is a minor legend in the Southwest since he's been signing his novel Rattlesnake Lawyer at every bookstore that will let him. This book chronicles his adventures while creating and promoting that book. I gleaned vital information from Miller's introduction:
    This is not a how-to-market-your book because the secret is already out there. The secret to marketing your book is to get distribution, then get reviews, then get media, then keep doing book signings until you are sick of them. Then rinse. Then repeat. You will feel like a homeless person begging for money on some signings, except it is worse because homeless persons don't have to give plot summaries to passers-by.
    I successfully applied those strategies to marketing my own book when I got home. Most beginning authors will enjoy this book, and Miller's humorous style should appeal to non-writers as well. The book is rather short but inexpensive.
  • Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast - This is easily the best current events book I have read all year. Palast really does his homework as a BBC reporter, and this book synthesizes that work (which most Americans never get to see), adding depth and background. Many of his conclusions will surprise readers. Did the U.S. invade Iraq for oil? Sort of, Palast says, but the objective wasn't to take the oil, it was to keep it from being pumped. He looks at the concept of "peak oil" from several perspectives, too. This isn't a leftist screed; anyone who hasn't been completely brainwashed by the Bush administration's version of the truth will find interesting material here. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what those in power are doing and why. Palast explains complex concepts clearly and injects just enough humor to keep it from getting too heavy.
  • Oops: 20 Life Lessons from the Fiascoes That Shaped America by Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger - The authors previously wrote a book called Poplorica, and Oops is similarly rooted in pop culture. The "fiascoes" range from fads (paper dresses, leisure suits) to follies (the Spruce Goose, flying cars). Remember the XFL, Vince McMahon's football league that only five years ago promised to change the world of sports? That's another chapter. I don't agree with all of the authors' choices, though. They include "the Y2K scare," claiming it was just hype that made doomsayers rich. But just because there were few problems on January 1, 2000 doesn't mean Y2K was all hype -- it means a lot of programmers busted their tails in the late 1990s to make sure life would continue smoothly into the new millenium. Also the first two chapters, though entertaining, don't quite fit in since they precede the third chapter by decades (the rest of the chapters are closer together chronologically). The recipe cards ("Recipe for Disaster") at the end of each chapter are redundant and goofy, but overall Oops is an interesting look at some notable screw-ups.
  • Living in the Runaway West: Partisan Views From Writers on the Range - This book is a compilation of pieces by numerous authors for the "Writers on the Range" column in High Country News. Another book purchased on vacation (at The Book Mine in Leadville), this has limited appeal for Midwesterners but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Columns range from humorous to experiential to informational, and anything about the American West is fair game. Naturally, a favorite topic is the influx of outsiders and developers over the past few decades and their impact on the "real" West. Other articles in this potpourri discuss ecology, guns, public lands, water, ranching, coyotes, prairie dogs, wolves, cowboy poetry, and casinos. As in any anthology, there are a few misses, but the editors did an admirable job of including multiple viewpoints on a broad array of issues facing the region. If you are interested in the modern West and all facets of life there, you will like this book.

Newspaper Outsourcing Revisited

Last January, I debated Eric Zorn here about newspaper outsourcing. I started out just rattling his cage, insisting that journalists should have the same anxieties about being outsourced that so many others do. His reply developed into an interesting discussion. But this entry isn't about outsourcing content; it's about outsourcing telemarketing, which almost every major business does nowadays.

This afternoon I got a phone call. Caller ID said it was "Strategic Mktg" from the 623 area code, which is in Arizona. Usually I let the machine take those calls, but I was bored so I answered.

"Hello, this is Greg from the Chicago Tribune."

"Okay..." I replied, wondering why they would be calling since I already subscribe.

"Uh, the Chicago Sun-Times, I'm calling from the Chicago Sun-Times."

Oops! When companies outsource, I'll bet they don't expect telemarketers to drop the names of their competitors!

On the bright side, he politely ended the conversation when I said I wasn't interested -- most telemarketers rudely hang up. Plus I got a good chuckle (and a blog entry) out of his faux pas.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

How Hitler Could Have Won World War II by Bevin Alexander

In this intriguingly titled book, Bevin Alexander offers some great theories about how Hitler pursued the wrong objectives or executed the wrong strategies in many cases where he could have achieved a potentially unassailable advantage. Here are a couple of examples:
  • The Suez Canal was a critical objective that Erwin Rommel and Erich Raeder recognized, but they could not convince Hitler. In fact, Hitler viewed the North Africa campaign as a political rather than military exercise -- his only objective was to toss Mussolini a bone to keep Italy in the war. Alexander posits that if Germany had secured the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea would have become an Axis lake, the Nazis would have secured all the Middle East oil their war machine needed, and Hitler could have pressured the Soviet Union from the south instead of head-on from the west. This also would have impacted Britain greatly by severing the fastest route to colonial India. Yet even when Rommel achieved stunning victories with minimal forces, he could not persuade Hitler to spare a few divisions for a crushing blow against the British in North Africa.
  • Turning against Russia is generally cited as Hitler's worst mistake, but Alexander digs much deeper. He discusses Hitler's three objectives in Operation Barbarossa, noting that Germany only had the resources to accomplish one of them. It is a tribute to the leadership on the ground and the skill of German soldiers that Hitler came so close to attaining all three. Clearly if Hitler had concentrated on one, he could have achieved at least a commanding position if not outright victory. Also, though he hated communism, Hitler somehow failed to recognize how oppressed and unhappy many Russians were under Stalinism -- had he invaded as a liberator rather than as a conqueror, he could have gained the critical support of Russian civilians. Even after making these errors, Hitler had other opportunities to turn the tide in Russia, and Alexander looks at a few of those, too.
Unfortunately, many of Alexander's insights get buried in a difficult text overwhelmed with the dry details of troop movements. Instead of sticking closely to the title, this book is mainly a narrative of the European Theater with some emphasis on decision points where Hitler erred (he notes the Allies' bad decisions as well).

In fact, I cannot determine the audience for the book as written. My wife has an interest in World War II but not much background. For her, this book is just too hard to read. The battlefield actions of the 2nd New Zealand and 6th Panzer divisions are of little interest to her. I know a lot about the war (I was fascinated/obsessed with World War II as a ten-year-old -- as I've said before, I was a weird kid), but it doesn't appeal to me, either. I already know the basics of European operations, and frankly, I don't care to drill down to the division level (I actually fell asleep numerous times trying to plow through it). I wanted to read more about Hitler's decisions and their consequences. Lastly, a scholar would already know all the troop movements by heart, making much of the book redundant. So no one is really served by this regurgitation of the information contained in hundreds of books from the past 50 years.

It's a shame because the subject had great potential before Alexander buried it in unnecessary details. He could have created a much more readable, albeit slimmer, volume by concentrating on big picture what-ifs rather than plowing through minutiae with limited appeal.

Lyrics of the Day

When I wrote, "Let's put two and two together here," in my last entry, it reminded me of a great Bob Seger anti-war song from his first album in 1968, back when he made controversial counter-culture music. "2 + 2 = ?" is one of the best Vietnam protest songs you've never heard:

Yes it's true I am a young man but I'm old enough to kill
I don't wanna kill nobody but I must if you so will
And if I raise my hand in question you just say that I'm a fool
Cause I got the gall to ask you, can you maybe change the rules
Can you stand and call me upstart, ask what answer can I find,
I ain't sayin' I'm a genius, 2 + 2 is on my mind

The Bob Seger System's first album Ramblin' Gamblin' Man is best known for its title track, but it's full of weird, psychedelic material typical of the era. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find on CD. Apparently Seger feels that it doesn't represent his best work; it certainly doesn't conform to his popular image from the late 1970s through the present. In other words, this isn't your parents' Bob Seger, unless your parents are Michigan hippies.

Jailing Governor Ryan

Former Illinois Governor George Ryan was sentenced to a mere 6-1/2 years in prison yesterday. I am not alone in using the word mere; a Chicago Tribune online poll (unscientific as always) currently shows 62.4% of respondents agree that his sentence was "too light."

Ryan wants to serve his time in Oxford, Wisconsin, not far from the upper Midwest's preeminent tourist trap, Wisconsin Dells. Of course, he won't be the first disgraced Illinoisan to be held there:

Because of its proximity to Chicago, the medium security facility has over the years become a highly sought after address for a who's who of crooked Illinois politicians. Former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski spent time there, as did former Cook County undersheriff James Dvorak and former 1st Ward Ald. Fred Roti. So did former Judges Richard LeFevour and Reginald Holzer, convicted in the Operation Greylord scandal.
The sad thing is that the dishonor roll of convicted Illinois politicians is many times longer than that.

A bigger prison story broke yesterday -- President Bush announced that suspected terrorists have all been moved from secret CIA prisons throughout the world to the now-legendary facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Words cannot express my pride upon hearing details of America's secret prisons. It makes me feel so Soviet.

Let's put two and two together here. The absence of those suspected terrorists means the lonely CIA prison operatives don't have anyone to waterboard anymore. Governor Ryan needs a place to serve his brief prison term. Maybe 6-1/2 years would be a suitably long sentence after all.

As the soiled stars of Ryan and Bush cross paths here, this is a good time to remind people that a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll released this week found that despite Ryan's conviction (and pending sentencing at the time), the old guv is still more popular than our widowmaker-in-chief:
Only 32 percent favored Bush in Illinois, while 35 percent had a favorable opinion of Ryan, also a Republican. Ryan had a significantly lower negative rating, 56 percent, compared to 67 percent for Bush.
Although the positive rating difference was within the poll's margin of error, the spread between negative ratings is more conclusive. Pollster Del Ali offered this interpretation: "Some of the thinking may be, 'Ryan can't hurt me anymore. Bush still can hurt me.'" Yes, he can.

Why Can't We Celebrate This Here?

Fayreform, an Australian lingerie brand, is celebrating the 2nd annual National Breast Pride Week in the United Kingdom (Australia and New Zealand each had their own weeks last month):

Created to be an intelligent celebration of big boobs and to encourage women with fuller cups to wear their breasts with pride, Fayreform National Breast Pride Week is set to get the nation’s women talking about their breasts!
Why not -- I'm sure the nation's men already are! Next check out this press release (PDF) titled "The 2006 Fayreform Breast Report:"
The survey, which delves into how British women feel about their breasts, reveals that over ¾ of UK women are proud of and comfortable with their breasts and that 67% of bigger busted women stand proud when walking into a room of strangers to show off their assets. Emma Chapman, Fayreform Braologist™, comments: “It is really fantastic to know that the majority of British women are proud of their breasts – that is after all what Fayreform National Breast Pride Week is all about. It is such a positive statistic – I am not sure there would be such an overwhelming response for any other body part – we’re never that happy with our bottoms, legs or stomachs! This just proves breasts are best!”
I don't know about that last point -- I've always been rather partial to "bottoms" myself (is there a National Booty Pride Week?). For more titillation, read the Fayreform Boob Bible (9 MB PDF). This helpful publication includes topics like "Bra Etiquette," "History Of The Bra," and "How to get the best from your breasts."

We can only hope Fayreform brings the festivities Stateside one of these years...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What Would Nancy Reagan Say?

Despite all the medieval, wrongheaded views held by the Taliban, they accomplished one good thing: in July 2000 they banned opium, punishable by death. Needless to say, the lucrative opium crop declined. When the United States invaded Afghanistan, many warned that poppy production would make a stunning comeback. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures, and in a war-ravaged economy, illegal drugs are one of the few dependable exports.

According to the United Nations, Afghan opium production increased 60 percent this year.
The record crop yielded 6,100 tons of opium, or enough to make 610 tons of heroin -- outstripping the demand of the world's heroin users by a third, according to U.N. figures... The trade already accounts for at least 35 percent of Afghanistan's economy, financing warlords and insurgents.
Great! At a time when everyone is concerned about the scarcity and rising cost of resources like oil and natural gas, it's nice to hear we have a surplus of heroin. Lastly, here's a "duh" quote from Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "Our efforts to fight narcotics have proved inadequate."

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Misquoted

From cyclingnews.com today:

Di Rocco told La Gazzetta dello Sport, "I'm surprised at McQuaid's comments. First I would say that our process of sporting justice needs to run it's course and now (McQuaid) seems to be speaking for the Spanish investigating judge (in Operacion Puerto)."
I don't care about the content, but look at what cyclingnews.com did: they used the wrong it's. If somebody ever quoted me and made that mistake, I would be furious! It would look as if I didn't know the right word. Incidentally, the site confuses its and it's regularly. This is not an obscure usage rule, nor is it difficult to interpret -- use an apostrophe in the contraction and omit the apostrophe in the possessive pronoun. (Since the Web site is Australian, I verified that misuse is not an Aussie English anomaly -- look here and here.) Cyclingnews.com also mangles sentences with misplaced modifiers and such. Competitor VeloNews isn't any better in that respect, as painfully illustrated by this recent gem of a sentence:
Unlike T-Mobile - which fired star riders Jan Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla after alleged links to Fuentes were disclosed ahead of the Tour - Basso is still part of Team CSC.
A good tactic for checking one's grammar is to remove extraneous words and phrases to see if the basic sentence is correct. Do that here, and you get "Unlike T-Mobile, Basso is still part of Team CSC." But T-Mobile is a team and Basso is an individual, so the sentence is nonsensical -- it implies that T-Mobile was once part of Team CSC. Some of you may be thinking, Well, I can figure out what they meant. But with good grammar, you wouldn't have to "figure out" anything -- it would be as clear as Lance Armstrong's domination of the Tour de France.

Am I wrong to expect cycling journalists to know how to write good sentences? Should I not expect editors of cycling Web sites -- these are for-profit enterprises, not "fan" sites -- to catch common mistakes like its versus it's? Am I the only person who would be really upset about someone using the wrong its/it's when quoting me?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Today's award goes to the guy riding a tandem bicycle on Montrose Avenue this evening. He was the captain (front seat), and a woman was the stoker (back seat). So what makes him bastard-worthy? He was wearing a bulky backpack -- the stoker had about three inches between her nose and the nylon sack. As if a stoker's normal forward view isn't bad enough, I'm sure she loves having that backpack right in front of her face. I presume she is his wife; a girlfriend would never put up with that!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Our replacement mail carrier wins today's award. When our regular mail carrier goes on vacation, we get our mail late, around 7 PM. I can accept that, and I haven't complained about it for the past two weeks unlike my wife, who lives for catalogs and magazines. In fact, I rarely kvetch about the U.S. Postal Service except when I have to wait in line for 25 minutes to mail a package. All things considered, it's a pretty good value to be able to send a letter from here to California for only 39 cents.

But for two Saturdays in a row, the stupid bastard has left behind my Netflix return envelopes. There's just no excuse for that. I do my part, leaving them sticking prominently out of the mailbox. And it isn't like a Netflix envelope (in eye-catching red!) is an unusual sight for a postal carrier; the USPS must make millions carting those things back and forth. Last week he or she mixed it with our new mail, and this week the idiot left it hanging out of the mailbox lid despite lifting the lid to put in our new mail! How freaking incompetent can a mail carrier be? It's not rocket science -- take the outgoing mail out of the box and put the incoming mail in the box. Maybe if the weather was dreadful, I could forgive this person, but today was one of the most beautiful days of the year. I intended to write about this bastard last Saturday, but I decided not to since anyone can make a mistake. But two weeks in a row is pure incompetence.

In other Netflix news, the DVD that I was supposed to receive on Tuesday finally arrived today. That's also the postal service's fault because Netflix shipped it on Monday. There's no reason for something mailed from Chicago to take five days to deliver to a customer in Chicago. I could view several more DVDs a month if the USPS didn't screw around with my mail so much (keep in mind that I pay Netflix a flat fee regardless of how many discs I get to watch). If Netflix didn't have a PO box, I could just go there and pick up the DVDs myself (which is precisely why they do have a PO box -- to avoid having people like me show up constantly).

Lyrics of the Day

Today's lyrics should be familiar. "Folsom Prison Blues" is one of Johnny Cash's most recognized songs. It's probably his most covered song, too -- it seems like every alt-country band has performed it.
I hear the train a comin'
It's rollin' 'round the bend,
And I ain't seen the sunshine,
Since, I don't know when,
I'm stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin' on,
But that train keeps a-rollin',
On down to San Antone.

I'd like to dedicate today's lyrics to my brother. Only because he likes Johnny Cash, of course.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Touring in Chicago Athlete

Cyclo-Chris took a break from playing in the dirt to write about bicycle touring in his monthly Chicago Athlete column. It's a pretty good article considering its brevity (after all, entire books have been written about the topic). The article is illustrated (in the magazine, not online) with a picture of me from my cross-country tour in 2002. Incidentally, it's the only photo of 2,000+ from that trip that I did not take myself. Anyway, I appreciate the shout-out. Who knows, maybe it will sell another book or two.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Good Deals Come to Those Who Wait

We've been on the fence about renewing the News-Star, our local weekly newspaper. I like to keep informed about neighborhood news, but the paper has noticeably declined in quality since Pioneer Press bought out the Lerner chain.

First Pioneer Press unceremoniously dumped Ed Schwartz. I threatened to cancel my subscription but ultimately did not. Several familiar staff writers also disappeared without explanation. Then the News-Star went to a tabloid format like the Chicago Sun-Times (except stapled). I'll admit my complaint there is a matter of personal preference -- having been raised on the Chicago Tribune, I've never liked tabloids.

Worst of all, the copyediting descended to new lows after Pioneer Press took over. Granted, I have an eye for proofreading, but I shouldn't find errors in nearly every story. And I'm not talking about misspellings (though there are more of those than modern spell-checking software should allow). At least once a week, I will be reading an article to my wife and stumble over the words. A closer look explains why: the sentence as printed makes no sense. A word or phrase is missing, subject and verb disagree, the verb is in the wrong tense, or a modifier is misplaced. It's just awful -- high school level at best.

So when the News-Star sent renewal offers this summer, I was torn between my desire for news and my desire for a quality newspaper. The best deal they offered was $33 for three years. That was much better than their $18.50 annual rate, but I hesitated to commit to three more years of atrocious copyediting. Then I applied the same analysis I use with the Sunday Tribune: I can clip enough coupons in the Sunday paper to equal or exceed its price, so it's like getting the paper for free. The News-Star doesn't have a coupon section, but Monastero's, an excellent northwest side Italian restaurant where we had our wedding reception, is a regular advertiser. They usually offer a coupon good for $10 off a second entree. Since we eat there several times a year, that would more than justify the News-Star subscription. But despite my reasoning, I still didn't mail a check.

Last night we got a phone call from the News-Star. They asked me to renew. How much? "Five ninety-nine. We'll invoice you, and your subscription will continue uninterrupted." With the cost of the subscription appropriately reduced to the sale price of a 12-pack of Charmin Ultra toilet paper (big rolls), I accepted their offer.

Now if only they would hire me to be their copyeditor...

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Happier Anniversary

Today is the second anniversary of the DJWriter blog. Like many bloggers, I started because I needed a creative outlet from a job that made me miserable (let's not talk about how many billable hours I may have spent blogging -- probably no more than I would have spent socializing if I'd had more friends at work). Now that writing is my job, this blog has become a way to distill my thoughts, share my experiences, and occasionally pontificate. It's been mostly fun, though I have had a few irritating encounters with disgruntled readers. Along the way, this blog has shifted focus many times, which perhaps means it has no focus at all. Most recently, it has been a diary of my summer book tour. Even I don't know what's next, so stay tuned...

Coincidentally, two of the very few blogs I follow regularly also have August anniversaries. Eric Zorn preceded me by a year, and Jen Garrett has been blogging 2.5 times as long as I have. So happy anniversary to them, too.

Lyrics of the Day

Today's lyrics come from Texas legend Jerry Jeff Walker:
He danced for those at minstrel shows and county fairs throughout the South
He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and him traveled about
His dog up and died he up and died
After twenty years he still grieves
I thought of those words from "Mr. Bojangles" a lot after Teddy died and imagined myself grieving for a long time. Today is the first anniversary of his death. I'm feeling a little better, slowly but surely, to the point where thinking about him doesn't automatically bring up painful memories of his last days. But I'll still think of him in 20 years, assuming I'm still here. If not, maybe I'll be feeding him ham sandwiches in heaven.

As for Walker and his famous song, I found this tidbit written by Tom Gascoyne:
This Saturday I get to go to the Feather Falls Casino to see Jerry Jeff Walker. When I tell people this, most draw a blank and say "Who?" Then I tell them, "He wrote 'Mr. Bojangles.'" And they think of Sammy Davis Jr. and his smarmy version of that great song. But Walker is like Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings, only more grounded. You get the feeling he's really lived the things he sings about... As for "Mr. Bojangles," Walker's friend David Bromberg explained in a 1972 recording that Walker met Bojangles in a drunk tank in New Orleans while doing a little "field research."

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman

After enjoying Killing Yourself to Live, I was anxious to read more from Chuck Klosterman. When I found this book as part of a Borders "buy 2 get 1 free" deal, I had to get it. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is a fascinating and entertaining read for anyone who pays attention to popular culture, be it music, movies, television, sports, or celebrities. It is a collection of essays, and since the brief essays were my favorite parts of Killing Yourself to Live (even when they were tangential to the plot), I love this book.

Klosterman addresses issues like whether Pam Anderson is the Marilyn Monroe of our time, why soccer will never be as popular in the U.S. as its proponents predict, and what's wrong with contemporary journalism. He throws in an article about touring with a Guns N' Roses tribute band and a meditation on serial killers. The longer essays are separated by brief "interludes," which run the gamut from slice-of-life observations to "The twenty-three questions I ask everybody I meet in order to decide if I can really love them," which is like a twisted version of the game Scruples.

While I can't completely identify with every essay (I've never watched MTV's Real World or paid any attention to Saved By The Bell, for example), Klosterman injects enough cultural references and humor into his writing that I can still figure out what he's getting at. I don't necessarily agree with all of his analyses, but Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is one of the most hilarious and insightful books I have ever read. My next stop on the Klosterman train: Fargo Rock City.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Am I the Odd One?

I recently discussed two topics with family members who handle them differently:

Wedding rings - My wife has lost her wedding ring, though she is certain it is somewhere in the house. My mom and my brother both reacted the same way, wondering why she would take it off. They even sleep with their rings on. I, on the other hand, always take off my wedding ring -- when I get home, the ring comes off when I take off my watch and empty my pockets. It never occurred to me to keep it on all the time. So, am I the odd one here? Do most people wear their wedding rings 24-7-365?

Frozen pizza - My brother was complaining about a brand of frozen pizza that doesn't include a piece of cardboard. He puts the pizza on the cardboard after it's baked. This seems strange to me. I always use a pizza pan, a housewarming gift that I got when I moved into my first apartment twelve years ago (from my mom's sisters and their husbands, if I remember correctly). My brother also has a pizza pan, but he doesn't want to get it dirty. I just throw the cardboard away; I thought it was meant to keep the pizza from bending and breaking in transit or in the freezer. Isn't that why most boxed frozen pizzas don't have cardboard but most shrink-wrapped pizzas do? Pizza joints use cardboard for carryout and delivery, but they use pans for those who dine at the restaurant. Again, am I the odd one here? Do most people use their frozen pizza cardboard as a serving dish after baking?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Planet No More

It's official: the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has demoted Pluto from planetary status. Readers may recall that I noted two months ago that this would be a huge story, way back when the Chicago Tribune thought new names for Pluto's moons were more worthy of a headline. In fact, today's news was important enough to warrant an e-mail news alert from the Tribune (CNN, too, but they send out alerts for everything).

The click poll attached to the Tribune's story is ridiculous. It asks whether readers agree with the decision, as if the average yahoo viewing the Tribune's Web site knows a damned thing about astronomy. This isn't a JonBenet Ramsey story; it's science. So far the vote is nearly two-to-one against the IAU. I'd like to ask those "no" voters if they can even name the eight planets in our solar system -- in order, starting with the closest to the sun. Maybe they are just lazy textbook editors who don't want to update their publications.

Here's the funniest paragraph in the Tribune's article:
It was unclear how Pluto's demotion might affect the mission of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which earlier this year began a 9 1/2-year journey to the oddball object to unearth more of its secrets.
Huh? Maybe NASA will say, "Oh hell, Pluto's not even a real planet anymore. Let's just turn this thing off and forget about it!" Seriously, I cannot imagine how the IAU's decision could have any impact whatsoever on a space probe. Just because Pluto isn't classified as a planet doesn't mean it isn't worth investigating.

I favored demotion two months ago and still do. As technology improves, we will probably discover many more Trans-Neptunian objects, each one supporting the IAU's decision. After all, we can't call every little rock in orbit a planet or the designation becomes trivial. Pluto is as consequential as the asteroid belt (a few asteroids were also once classified as planets), and the IAU is recognizing that, designating it and some asteroids as dwarf planets.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Downers Grove

I had a decent weekend signing in front of Anderson's Bookshop in downtown Downers Grove. They provided a table and a chair; the rest was up to me. I felt like Jonathan C. Miller in Amarillo in August (an obscure reference I hope to clarify with a future book review). It's too bad the store isn't located a bit further south near the expo where everyone else was selling things. There was still a fair amount of foot traffic, however, since I was between the parking lots and the race course.

Saturday's best moment: A guy walking down the sidewalk pointed at Biking Illinois and said to his companion, "That's a great book!" as they passed. I'm not sure he even knew I was the author; a lot of people seemed to think I was a bookstore clerk. In retrospect I should have made "meet the author" signs. People inevitably became much more interested when they found out I wrote the book and wasn't merely selling it.

I stayed for 3-1/2 hours although I had planned on only two. A friend who recommended 3:00-5:00 gave good advice, though -- I sold eight books during that timeframe. On the other hand, the woman who bought the ninth book was so happy, it would have been a shame to miss her.

I returned at 12:30 on Sunday. This time I just grabbed the table (which still had my books from Saturday) and carried it outside myself. I didn't do as well as on Saturday, selling five books despite talking to a lot of potential customers. I hope to get some future sales for my efforts. Sometimes people don't have any money (though one guy on Saturday actually went to an ATM to get cash!), and other times people just need to think about it for a while. A bike shop owner asked me how to order books to sell at the shop. I had to refer her to my Web site because I didn't have the wholesale info handy.

Sunday's best moment: A young man came up to me with a piece of paper. "Can you sign this for me? My parents have your book, and they love it. They're doing every ride. They check them off as they go. Last weekend they went to Channahon." He wanted to give them the paper to put in their book, so I happily signed. I enjoy feedback like that even more than I enjoy selling books.

The street became pretty empty once the USPRO championship race started a little after 3:00, so I left at 3:30. All in all, my Downers Grove signings went well. When I spoke to the manager of Anderson's on Tuesday, he seemed pleased (he did nicely for a minimal investment of time and a table). He invited me to return next year. If I do, I'll make signs so people know who I am.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Today's bastard is Michael L. Jackson, truly a despicable person. A jury convicted Jackson of second-degree murder yesterday for repeatedly running over a cab driver in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood after a fare dispute. To be honest, I was just waiting for a verdict to give him this "honor" (I started BotD long after he committed his crime).

Jackson is such a bastard, let's enumerate the reasons...
  1. He killed a cab driver in a dispute over an $8 fare that he felt was $4 too high.
  2. He ran over the cabbie three times.
  3. His defense called witnesses to portray the victim as an asshole. If being an asshole qualified a person to be run over, there would be several inches of dried blood caked on my wheel wells. And I probably wouldn't be here to write this anyway.
  4. His defense also argued that Jackson just "attempted to flee the scene" and had to use the taxi to do so. I still haven't figured out how that explains the second and third times he ran over the cabbie.
  5. Although he hasn't been tried for it, Jackson was charged with reckless assault for allegedly spewing his HIV-infected spit at a nurse in a Downers Grove hospital several months after the cabbie incident.
  6. He has also been charged with reckless conduct for allegedly having sex with DuPage County Jail inmates without telling them he is HIV positive.

Sentencing is September 19. The defense wants the judge to consider Jackson's philanthropic activity. But how much philanthropy does it take to make up for murdering someone? And if Jackson is such a swell guy, why are those other charges pending from subsequent incidents? Let's hope they put this bastard away for the maximum of twenty years. That isn't nearly enough for such a heinous and wantonly committed crime; he could be out in ten years with good behavior. Then again, fellow inmates have ways of handling bastards like Jackson.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Lyrics of the Day

Last night we watched Racing Stripes. It was a fun movie with a predictably upbeat conclusion and a positive message about believing in oneself and being whatever you want to be. In other words, it was an unusual selection for a cynical bastard like me. When I see a feel-good children's movie like this, I inevitably wind up depressed about how life isn't full of happy endings. I think that's the real reason people have kids -- to try to remember what it was like to be happy and innocent, and to forget how cynical we all become as adults.

Much to my parents' disappointment, that's not a good enough reason for me to have kids. It wouldn't work anyway. I'd just project my own dark attitudes on them, and they'd turn out to be the moodiest tikes in the history of the world.

Before this devolves into a pathetic Bob Greene-esque column reminiscing about the good old days of youth that never existed, let's get to the lyrics. Tom Waits' "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" naturally comes to mind:
When I'm lyin' in my bed at night
I don't wanna grow up
Nothin' ever seems to turn out right
I don't wanna grow up
How do you move in a world of fog
That's always changing things
Makes me wish that I could be a dog
When I see the price that you pay
I don't wanna grow up
I don't ever wanna be that way
I don't wanna grow up

Okay, I'm heading over to Netflix to promote some grim documentary to the top of my queue. Somehow, seeing the worst of the real world doesn't bother me as much as yearning for an idealized, nonexistent one. I have lower standards for reality.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Random Thoughts

When I ride my bike, weird thoughts pop into my head and then out so quickly I can scarcely remember them. Here are a few I managed to retain long enough to type...

  • Everyone knows Gatorade got its name from the school where it was developed, the University of Florida. But what if it had been created at Florida State University? Would we be drinking Seminade instead?
  • Beyonce's new album is called B'Day. Is that the hip-hop spelling for a French bathroom fixture?
  • The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority should give away promotional bumper stickers that say "Gas, grass or I-PASS -- no one rides for free."

My Night as a Star

After signing books at six other Borders locations, I thought I knew the routine pretty well. Each store has its quirks, but they are similar enough: walk in, introduce yourself, sit at the table, and sign books, answering questions along the way. Lincoln Village, my last stop on the Borders Across Illinois Tour, was much different.

I must admit I had high hopes for this signing. It was mentioned in several newspapers, most notably the area's top alternative weekly, The Chicago Reader. They even put it on "The List," a day-by-day calendar of featured events. In other words, The Reader declared it the thing to do on Wednesday, August 16.

When I arrived, I saw a display rack advertising my appearance, but I didn't see a table anywhere. So much for attracting people as they walked in the door. Then I went upstairs. Several employees were setting up chairs, a table (no black cloth this time)... and a sound system. Yikes, a microphone! When I introduced myself, I was invited into the back room, behind the "staff only" door. An ice bucket filled with bottled water was waiting for me. It was like sitting in the green room. I talked with an employee for a while, and then she made an announcement on the PA system. She escorted me out to my table and read a brief introduction. There were about 15 people there, and they applauded me!

Since I don't really have a presentation as such, I asked if anyone had questions. Fortunately, I spoke loudly enough that the microphone was unnecessary. We had a pretty good discussion that managed to stay on-topic (i.e. about the book, not about a broad range of cycling issues). On reflection, I am glad this type of event happened now instead of a couple of months ago. I have talked about the book enough that I speak much more easily and confidently than I did during my first signing.

The crowd was genuinely enthusiastic. One couple had just completed the Grand Illinois Trail, and they were anxious to explore the places in my book. Another reminded me that one of the trails in my book was just beyond the Borders parking lot (somehow I had forgotten to mention it). One highlight of the evening was talking with a man raised in Metropolis. He was looking for rides he could do on the way home. I took great pleasure in pointing out the index subheading "Along I-57" followed by six rides. He smiled. "Yep, that's me, 300 miles down I-57!" Lots of people asked questions, and there were several employees on hand to help me with everything. This was definitely the most professionally executed and organized signing I have done. I really felt like a star.

So what was my total for the night? I'm not sure. I was so busy talking that I didn't keep count very well. To my surprise, not everyone who bought a book wanted an autograph. I signed about six books but probably sold twice as many.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Rockford Files

My Rockford adventure got off to a lousy start. I drove out there early to get out of Chicago before rush hour. Along the way, I recalled that this signing was very near the site of one of my biggest failures on a bike -- the day I aborted my five-day Grand Illinois Trail tour after only two days. Great, now I had demons to get rid of.

Dinner certainly didn't help. Both the food and service were disappointing. One of these days I'll learn my lesson and swear off Steak n Shake forever. I was too annoyed to order a shake for dessert although that was my primary reason for choosing that restaurant in the first place. Since I still had more than an hour to kill, I tried to console myself with a Snickers Blizzard at Dairy Queen instead. I ate half and then lost interest -- I don't think that's ever happened before. I was reading Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, which was funny but not in a way that raised my spirits. I recognized that I was in a funk. As I drove to Borders I hoped I could shake it, or else it would be a very long night.

My first impression was not encouraging. My signing was at 7 PM, but at 6:30 there was only a table covered with a black cloth. Without books or a chair, it looked funereal. I perused the shelves and generally lurked around the information desk; I'm never sure exactly what time I'm supposed to introduce myself. I noticed the obligatory display rack of hometown heroes Cheap Trick (their latest album is even called Rockford). When I overheard two customers asking about me, I figured it was time. This was a very good sign -- people actually arrived early in anticipation of the event!

Once I announced myself, a clerk brought out some books, a chair, and a bottle of water for me. Perhaps they have a lot of no-shows and didn't want to over-prepare? Actually, my biggest fear hasn't come true yet -- I am always afraid that the bookstore might not be expecting me at all. Or worse, that they were expecting me yesterday. Anyway, I was already signing books by 7:00. Once I shifted into author mode, my bad attitude disappeared. I lost count of how many books I signed during the first 15 minutes, but I'm pretty sure the total for the night was about ten. Several of the clerks were impressed. "A lot of authors don't do that well signing here," one said. She proceeded to introduce herself, and I got the sense that she was flirting with me. I should have become an author when I was single. Chicks dig it.