Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Is Your Life Worth $40?

In replying to a comment on another post, I mentioned staying at a motel that made me nervous just because I already had paid for a guaranteed reservation on my credit card. When we pulled into the parking lot of the Motel 6 on the east side of Columbus, Ohio last April, we spotted several unsavory characters lurking about. One of them was arguing with the night clerk. As we registered, a police car pulled in, lights flashing, to confront one of these lowlifes. My wife, also a police officer, began to wish she had brought her gun. I was on edge every step from the car to our room, especially going around corners. The lock on the door, the same lock that I've seen in dozens of other Motel 6 franchises, suddenly seemed not nearly enough. But never did it occur to me that maybe it would have been worth throwing away the $40 reservation and staying somewhere down the road to spare myself the stress over the possibility of being robbed or worse.

We make irrational decisions because of money all the time. We eschew a couple dollars in highway tolls and spend an extra half-hour sitting in traffic instead.

Here's my favorite example of human nature with regard to money: You walk up to a vending machine. A Snickers bar is 60 cents. You put three quarters in the machine. It spits out your change and drops the candy bar to the tray where you pick it up. But instead of picking up the 60-cent candy bar, you instinctively reach for the 15 cents in the change tray instead! It doesn't matter that the Snickers cost four times the amount of change; you go for the coins first.

Health Care: The Next Battle for the Compassionless Conservative

The question in everyone's mind upon hearing that health care expenses will be a major topic in tonight's State of Disunion address has to be "Oh God, how will W. screw this one up?" You know he will. And a cursory glance at the pre-speech hype confirms it:
Bush's proposals include an extension of tax breaks for individual medical spending and an expansion of tax-free health savings accounts, sources say. The goal is to make medical markets more efficient and give consumers an incentive to shop more carefully for health care.
Uh, Mr. President, there are two huge problems with health care (actually three, but we'll get to the other one later): people who can't afford insurance and people who can't afford care despite having insurance. How exactly do these proposals help those people? They don't.

Obviously, people who cannot afford health insurance cannot afford to stash a meaningful amount of money in a tax-free health savings account. And tax breaks on medical spending don't solve your problem when you have $50,000 in health care costs and a $40,000 annual income.

Bush's plan encourages people to insure themselves by saving and spending their own money for health care. Who will have the most to gain from this? Healthy people, of course. And that will leave only the unhealthy in insurance programs whose premiums will skyrocket. The basic principle of insurance is spreading the risk among many. Healthier people subsidize the care of sicker people. This is both a social good (not letting the weaker among us die for lack of care) and a personal investment (eventually the healthier people will get sick, counting on healthier people to subsidize them). When healthy people's personal savings accounts cause health care premiums to rise, even more sick people will fall through the cracks because they cannot afford insurance.

Like everything else in America, though no one wants to talk about it, it all comes down to economic class. The wealthy will save money by paying a portion of their health costs from tax-advantaged accounts, while the poor, if they can even afford insurance (forget about personal accounts for them), will pay more for it. The wealthier get to save money and the poorer get to spend more money. Sound familiar? Every major program the Bush administration has pushed aims to accomplish these two goals.

And here's the third problem, the 800-pound gorilla that Bush ignores. Our health care system is among the worst out of all industrialized nations by numerous criteria. Market efficiency may save us some money, but it isn't going to save our lives.

Conservatives don't have any good solutions for health care; they never have. I hope that after Bush's social security privatization debacle and countless other miscues (war under false pretense, FEMA incompetence, domestic spying, et cetera, ad nauseum), the public won't drink any more of his Kool-Aid.

Like social security, the health care problem is huge and needs to be fixed. But these aren't the people you want to fix it.

Monday, January 30, 2006

I Feel an Itch Coming On...

It's our seventh wedding anniversary today.

In other news, we finally had the Neon towed away by Kars4Kids.com. They are actually a poorly run charity and a suspicious front for orthodox Jewish New Jersey missionaries, but the bottom line is that they towed the car for free, and we can claim a tax-deductible gift. Besides, odds are the charity won't get any money anyway. My wife said she was okay with all that, and her name is on the title so it's her call. I did a quick check of some popular animal welfare charities (HSUS, ASPCA, Anti-Cruelty Society), and none of them appeared to have a car donation program, so we went with Kars4Kids. If you care where your money goes or you're donating a car with any value, you may want to look elsewhere.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

And You Thought Check-Out TV was Annoying

Those LCD-panel televisions at the grocery store check-out line were only the first step in a strategy to video-fy your shopping experience.

What's next? ShelfAds -- tiny video players that show commercials as you walk down an aisle. With iPod-sized video screens, they will be positioned right beside the products advertised. By playing only when you pass, they won't be tuned out by shoppers like in-store ads that play continuously. But wait, there's more:

Mr. McGinnis said the system has also been built to integrate RFID technologies and could one day dispense aromas as well. “If you are in the bread aisle, you could release the aroma of fresh-baked bread,” he said.
And when you walk down the diaper aisle... okay, bad idea. (Note: the preceding joke was originally about lutefisk. Then the focus groups showed that not enough people know what lutefisk is, but everyone knows toilet humor. And no, lutefisk is not a Norwegian rapper who hates Bill O'Reilly -- that's Ludafisk.)

These are like child simulators -- you'll be looking at cereal, and one of these obnoxious ShelfAds will call out, "Mommy, I want Apple Jacks!" Okay, not exactly -- a 10-second commercial for Apple Jacks will play instead (for what it's worth, Apple Jacks were never the same for me after they introduced the green Os).

Call me a weirdo, but I love grocery shopping. Why? Because I do it in the middle of the night when no one is around to bug me or get in my way. ShelfAds will encroach on my 2 AM "quiet time" at the grocery store. I can assure you that products advertised in this manner will be less likely to land in my shopping cart. Sheesh, just let me shop in peace!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Taking the Netflix Plunge

We're finally doing it. I'm sick of Blockbuster's disingenuous "no late fee" program (where they charge you for purchasing the movie if you keep it too long, then charge a "service fee" if you return it -- just a late fee with a new name). I'm also tired of the limited selection in video stores because I have eclectic interests (most of the mainstream movies I've reviewed here were procured by my wife). Which brings me to another reason -- my wife is always the one who goes to the video store, so I don't even get to see what they have.

I signed up for Netflix early on Wednesday, and we got our first DVDs Thursday afternoon. My first three selections, just based on what popped into my head to order:
  1. Be More Cynical, a Bill Maher stand-up routine - Not that I need any help being cynical, but I just finished reading his hilarious New Rules book. The video was good, but I liked the book better.
  2. Black on Broadway, a Lewis Black stand-up routine - You can see a pattern here. I love stand-up comedy, I don't have cable TV, and video stores never have much stand-up (though thank goodness my wife was able to find a DVD of the late, great Bill Hicks last year), so I will be ordering a lot of stand-up from Netflix. This was about what I expected, and I really enjoy everything I've heard from Black.
  3. La Dolce Vita, the legendary Federico Fellini film - My wife never found this in a video store, but I have a hunch she was looking in the wrong place (it's probably in the foreign section). Anyway, I have wanted to see this since I heard the Bob Dylan song "Motorpsycho Nightmare," which I think is one of my mom's favorites:
    Then in comes his daughter
    Whose name was Rita.
    She looked like she stepped out
    of La Dolce Vita.
    Then my wife bought (yes, bought, mainly because she couldn't find any Rat Pack videos for rent) 4 For Texas, a lame, predictable movie notable for the buxom Anita Ekberg, who also stars in, yep, La Dolce Vita. By now you're waiting to hear my verdict... but we haven't watched it yet.

Anyone who knows me knows that I intend to get my money's worth out of this, so it should come as no surprise that I already returned two DVDs so I can get more early next week. I spent hours putting together a queue of about 65 DVDs, mostly classic movies, stand-up comedy, and Saturday Night Live compilations. Maybe someday I'll let my wife pick a movie or two as well. I told her she can't go to Blockbuster anymore.

UPDATE 03/08/2006 - I never mentioned that we finally watched La Dolce Vita a few days later. It's very, uh, foreign. When people talk about foreign films being strange, this is what they mean. Cinematically it was good, and I can see why directors are impressed with Fellini, but I couldn't follow the story; I just didn't get it. Neither did my wife. In that sense it was disappointing, but on the other hand, at least now I think I know what Bob Dylan was talking about.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Searching for a Niche

Or as they say in Gypsy, "You gotta have a gimmick."

My wife is thinking of changing to the midnight shift. We've been through this before, for the first few years we knew each other. She was a mess on her days off, always tired or sleeping. She looks stoned in almost every photo from that era. This time, however, things would be different. Since I am not working at a client site, we could be on the same schedule.

Walking home from the grocery store on this uncharacteristically mild January evening, it hit me. I'll be the Midnight Writer, the FedEx of copywriting. When you need something done overnight, I'll be the one to call. I work best at night anyway, as anyone paying attention to the late night/early morning timestamps here already knows. Of course, a moment later I was channeling the Allman Brothers Band...
But I'm not gonna let 'em catch me, no
Not gonna let 'em catch the midnight writer
We'll see what happens, I guess. I might have to lose the theme song, though.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

I'm in the Kitchen with the Tombstone Blues

Was Bob Dylan singing about frozen pizza? Doubtful. (And yes, I know he wrote "streets" instead of "kitchen.")

Eating frozen pizza is definitely slumming, especially in Chicago where so many great pizza joints deliver anytime from 11 AM to 5 AM. On the other hand, it is dirt cheap compared to "real" pizza, and I feel a little guilty ordering good pizza while my wife is working (we only dine together twice a week). For frozen, I think Home Run Inn is the best, especially since the Home Run Inn restaurant where we used to go (Rolling Meadows, I think) closed. Unlike most frozen pizzas, it is prebaked; the cheese is already melted. They don't have any unusual toppings, but the crust is exceptional.

But this blog entry is about the ubiquitous national brand, Tombstone. My favorite Tombstone pizza is barbecue chicken ("The sun's not yellow it's chicken"), which is about as exotic as Tombstone gets. For some reason it is never done at the prescribed time on the package. Then last night I had a sausage & pepperoni Tombstone. The instructions said to bake at 400 degrees for 17-19 minutes. The barbecue chicken pizza says to bake at 400 degrees for 12-14 minutes. Somehow I doubt that replacing the pizza sauce with barbecue sauce makes it cook in two thirds the time of a "regular" pizza. Mystery solved! What I don't understand is why Kraft has left clearly wrong instructions on the label for so many years.

By the way, have you ever read the small print on the sausage and pepperoni pizza? It says "made with pork, chicken & beef." That's like getting three toppings for the price of two! Of course, the best thing about frozen pizza, aside from its low price in general, is that you don't pay by the number of toppings anyway. Sausage & pepperoni is the same $2.50 on sale as plain cheese. On a real pizza, it costs $2.50 just to add two toppings. Or just to tip the delivery man (which reminds me: I never see women deliver pizza here in the city, so I'm always surprised to see a woman show up when I order pizza in a smaller town).

The brand's slogan disturbs me: What do you want on your Tombstone? I'm afraid my tombstone will read, "Here lies a guy who got fat eating cheap pizza."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Anywhere I Lay My Head, I'm Gonna Call My Home

My gal in Beantown, Jen Garrett, put together a list of places she slept last year. I've always wanted to make a list of every town I've ever slept in, so reviewing 2005 is a start. Of course, this year was heavily influenced by my book project. I've slept in almost every Motel 6 in Illinois outside of Chicagoland. In fact, I'll put "*" next to every town where I didn't stay in a Motel 6! And you will see that there is no overlap between Jen's list and mine, so just stop those rumors!

Chicago, IL* (home)
Springfield, IL
Greenville, IL*
Senatobia, MS
Tuscaloosa, AL
Gadsden, AL
Columbus, OH
Asheville, NC
Marietta, GA
Newport, TN
Marion, IL
Normal, IL
Peoria, IL*
Mount Vernon, IL
Collinsville, IL
Carbondale, IL
Moline, IL
Effingham, IL
Freeport, IL*
Dubuque, IA*
Honorable Mention: Fulton, IL* (I had paid for my room, but I didn't sleep there because our dog Teddy got sick and I had to drive home ASAP. It was a nice, affordable place with free wi-fi, the Pine Motel. I'd love to go back, but it would just remind me of that night and depress me.)

It's not a long list compared to years past, but I spent at least five weeks on the road this year. I stayed in the same places repeatedly, particularly Marion, Springfield, Normal, and Moline. My biggest complaint about this year's list is that it's so boring. In 2003 I visited 48 states and probably slept in at least half of them. Now that was exciting!

The Iranian Nuclear Non-Threat

Here's more fun reading from the past weekend. This article points out how ridiculous it is to consider Iran a nuclear threat to the United States. And the corporate media won't tell you, but what really keeps George and Dick up at night is the prospect of an Iranian Oil Bourse that trades in euros instead of US dollars. By the way, Saddam Hussein made the same currency switch before the Bush administration suddenly declared him a threat to our national security.

The conflict with Iran is not about nuclear power, nuclear weapons, or even oil. It's about currency. Right now countries need to stockpile dollars to buy oil, which is traded in New York and London. If they can buy oil with euros instead, they don't need our money anymore. When other countries don't need our money, our currency will lose value. It could be catastrophic, along the lines of the 1930s (peak oil could have that effect, too). Fortunately our president is willing to use whatever means are necessary to prevent that from happening, even if it ignites World War III. The Israelis are supposedly champing at the bit to make a nuclear strike against Iran's nuke program. It's just another reason I go to bed happy and contented every night.

Peak Oil

I've referred to peak oil here before, but this weekend I read an excellent article about the topic in the UK's Independent Online. One thing that stands out is that even British Petroleum's estimate of proven reserves is filled with caveats that render it useless. The article also details the way the largest OPEC producers suspiciously increased their "proven reserves" dramatically almost overnight. The author also talks about the decline of giant oilfields and our failure to discover significant new oilfields. There's a lot of good but scary info here. It's far too long to summarize, so you'll have to read it. This is the sort of thing responsible for my always cheery disposition.

Finally Figured Out Brokeback Mountain

I've been having a lot of fun with this movie. I was rolling on the floor as Craig Ferguson impersonated attempts at gay cowboy movies by actors through the ages (Tom Mix, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood). I laughed as that guy from The Producers did a brief musical of the film on David Letterman's show, not to mention the parody with the grizzly prospectors on Saturday Night Live. I've made my share of jokes, too, as my wife will attest. I tell her I want to go see it, but I want to take the best man from our wedding along. Maybe put a hand on his knee at the right moment...

I was disappointed when I learned that the movie wasn't about Old West cowboys. Inspired, I announced to my wife that I was going to write a screenplay about a couple of amorous cowpokes on a cattle drive in the 1880s and make big bucks. My brother even liked the idea, adding that just because I write the screenplay doesn't mean I have to see the film it becomes. Alas, my wife forbade me, no matter how much it would pay. You can see why I'm the one who manages the finances around here.

While I have enjoyed making fun of Brokeback Mountain, at the same time I was curious about its allure. Surely this movie was about more than just bringing Hollywood out of the closet, so to speak. Rather than watching the movie (sorry, not gonna happen), I read half a dozen reviews. Apparently it's the best love story released this past year regardless of the "controversy."

Today I had an epiphany -- Brokeback Mountain is the ideal chick flick. It's a touching romance that women can cry over, while at the same time guys who don't want to think about two guys doing it have a perfect excuse not to watch it! Even most of us straight guys who aren't anti-gay don't want to actually see two guys going at it. But women, particularly those who are into "important" or "artistic" movies (the type who will go see anything that wins an award, even if it is French with Greek subtitles), won't be able to stay away. Few straight guys want to see romantic, emotional, heartbreaking love stories regardless of the genders involved, so Brokeback Mountain doesn't even try to get us to come to the theater. Brilliant! Straight guys should be begging for movies like this -- send the women off to watch the gay whatever movie (construction workers, cops, the whole range of Village People) so the men can play touch football or engage in some other ambiguously homoerotic male bonding.


Despite my disinterest in romantic stuff noted above, I must say that last night's episode of How I Met Your Mother was pretty darn romantic. And Ashley Williams was pretty darn hot besides. This is one of the few television shows that I admire as a writer. The ultimate was the "urinating in public" episode -- I'm still trying to figure out the thought process of how they threaded those plots together.

UPDATE - 01/31/2006 - While author Annie Proulx was inspired by Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains, it turns out that Brokeback Mountain was actually shot in Alberta. Ugh, there's another reason not to go see it (no offense to Alberta, but I love Wyoming).

Monday, January 23, 2006

Don't Congratulate Me

What would you say if I told you I just bought $17,000 worth of stock that was guaranteed never to increase in value? And what if I said it would only be worth a few hundred dollars in a decade? First you'd ask me what I've been smoking, then you'd probably tell me to sell it (the stock, that is, not whatever I was smoking).

So why do people congratulate me for buying a car?

Does it have to do with the auto-centric nature of our culture? Am I to be congratulated for contributing to traffic congestion and pumping out greenhouse gases? Or is it about our rampant consumerism? Should I be lauded for accumulating goods? It's not much of an achievement; there are nearly six million cars in Illinois alone, so there's nothing special about owning one. Does anyone congratulate me for buying a television? Come to think of it, my TV has outlived my wife's car, so my $420 investment is looking better than her $15,000 investment now, isn't it? I haven't spent a dollar repairing my TV or performing any routine maintenance on it either. Plus it came with a free cordless phone, which we still use.

My family was disturbed when I told them I was selling my car after I moved downtown 10-1/2 years ago. Living without a car seemed to be more than their suburban mindsets could handle. My parents later said they were just afraid I was going to lose money on the deal, but they should have known me better than that (isn't it funny how people brand me as cheap without recognizing me as fiscally responsible?). Worse was a ridiculous comment from my grandfather about why I shouldn't sell: "A car is an investment." Huh? How is a depreciating asset an investment? We weren't talking about an antique, classic, or limited edition, just an ordinary car. There's only one context in which his statement made any sense. My grandfather was an insurance agent. So whenever a customer bought a car, it was an investment... in my grandfather's retirement fund!

I don't see why I should be congratulated for buying a car -- it's just a matter of spending a lot of money. At my wedding, did people congratulate me for getting married or for spending a bunch of cash on the nuptials? Jeez, I could have bought a car for that kind of dough.


When my mother-in-law saw our new car, she said something even worse: "That's a cute car you have." I suppose she was waiting for me to graciously respond to this supposed compliment. But instead, I stared blankly at her in silence. No guy in the world wants to be told his car is cute. In fact, if another guy said it, those would be fighting words. At least I bit my tongue; what I wanted to say was, "Cute? No, my Focus could kick your Buick LeSabre's old-lady-car ass!"

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Grant and Logan, and Our Tears

A recurring discussion with my wife is centered on her Chicago public school education compared to my suburban public school education. It's not something I gloat about in an "I'm smarter than you" way. It's just that I took for granted all the things I learned and assumed everybody learned those things.

My wife came home after walking the dog on Sunday and told me that one of her favorite neighborhood dogs had died. She said his owners now have another dog whose name is Logan. I replied, "Grant and Logan, and our tears, Illinois, Illinois." She had no clue. Didn't they teach you the Illinois state song in school? Nope. I tried the opening lines, because surely everyone knows those: "By thy rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois/O'er thy prairies verdant growing, Illinois Illinois." Not ringing a bell. I was stunned. I learned that song when I learned such trivia as the state bird (cardinal), state tree (white oak), state flower (violet), etc. It was all in a free book, although the lyrics of the song may have been a separate handout. Here is the Illinois Handbook of Government 2003-2004 online. You can download just the official state symbols or the whole thing (3.2 MB).

Okay, but who the heck was Logan anyway? They never taught me that.

John A. Logan was born in Murphysboro, IL. A U.S. Representative prior to the Civil War, he resigned from Congress to serve as a general in the Union Army. A speech he gave in Marion is credited with keeping southernmost Illinois in the Union when there had been talk of secession. Indeed, Logan was to southern Illinois what Ulysses S. Grant was to northern Illinois. After the war, Logan was elected again to two terms in the House. Then he became a Senator.

His most lasting legacy is Memorial Day. While scattered communities honored Civil War dead earlier, it was the 1868 General Order by Logan, then Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (a powerful Union veteran's organization), that designated a national day. It was known as Decoration Day because the graves of soldiers were to be strewn with flowers or otherwise decorated. He poignantly wrote
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.
Logan has been largely forgotten, even here in Illinois. Most Chicagoans don't even know him, although many have seen his statue in Grant Park, and some might guess correctly that Logan Boulevard and Logan Square were named for him. In southern Illinois, John A. Logan College is located halfway between Marion and Carbondale, and General John A. Logan Museum is in Murphysboro.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Look for the Union Napkin

A Chicago Tribune story about the closing of the legendary, 107-year-old Berghoff Restaurant wonders whether the union staff was part of the reason for closing. It is particularly suspicious since the business will be somewhat resurrected later this year as a bar and cafe bearing the Berghoff moniker. Half a century ago, there were almost 70 unionized restaurants in Chicago, but now there are only ten. I'll have to confess my ignorance here -- I didn't know there were any union restaurants. The Trib includes a list of them:
Berghoff (until February 28)
Gene & Georgetti
Italian Village
Navy Pier Beer Garden
Pizzeria Uno (the original, not the chain)
Pizzeria Due
Riva
Signature Room on the 95th (John Hancock Center)
Su Casa
Tony & Tina's Wedding (dinner theatre show)
Out of that list, Uno, Due and Su Casa were all founded by the same person, Ike Sewell. I've been to Uno, Italian Village, and the Signature Room. My wife wants to go to Berghoff before it closes, but I'm not really interested. Aside from bratwurst, I'm not much for German food despite my Becker blood. I am surprised that the press coverage of Berghoff never mentions the North Side German dining institution Zum Deutschen Eck, which closed six years ago. While the Berghoff owners claim business is good, German is not a popular cuisine in Chicago anymore. I can think of a couple of restaurants, including Lincoln Square's Chicago Brauhaus, but there used to be more (Schulien's comes to mind, although at least its replacement, O'Donovan's, still has that restaurant's traditional gimmick -- magic performed live at your table -- that I remember from dinners on the way home from Cubs games as a kid).

While a union supporter would have a hard time patronizing only union restaurants, there are plenty of union hotels in Chicago to choose from. This list surprises me because it includes some cheaper lodging and excludes some expensive hotels. So look for the union towel, too.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Coincidence or Savvy Subliminal Marketing?

The other night I was watching Boston Legal, which features William Shatner along with the best camera operators and video editors in television. A commercial came on... for Enterprise Rent-A-Car!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Proof

I can't believe what I'm holding in my hands (okay, not literally at this moment because I'm typing, but work with me...). It's the proof for my book, Biking Illinois: 60 Great Road and Trail Rides. A proof is the closest thing to a real book that the author gets to see before publication. My lengthy Microsoft Word document has been set into pages with photos, maps, graphics, and sidebars. It's everything but the front and back covers. Unlike during my last manuscript review, this time I can only correct typos and facts -- rewriting again will bring down the wrath of my editor. There is no more debating or fighting The Chicago Manual of Style.

Of course, I have seen all of this content before, to the point of intimate familiarity. I have written and rewritten, edited and re-edited, scrutinized, and fact-checked the text. I've selected and edited the photos and captions. I've drawn rough maps, reviewed the cartographers' work, and reviewed it again. But I've never seen it all together.

For the past 14 months I have been looking at Biking Wisconsin: 50 Great Road and Trail Rides as my guide for format and style. Now it's as if I am looking at that book but with my writing inside. Surreal. I'm reading a book for the first time, yet I already know the words. It's starting to sink in that this thing that I have created is almost ready for the reading and riding public. In just three months I will be a published author.

Cubs on a Roll

Last year second baseman Ryne Sandberg made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This year relief pitcher Bruce Sutter is the only man deemed worthy to enter the Hall. I'm just old enough to remember Sutter as a Cub during the early years of my baseball card collecting days. Too bad he went to the Cardinals when I was ten years old, although the Cubs didn't fare too badly since he was soon replaced by Lee Smith, another strong closer. While people wondered which baseball cap Sutter would be wearing in Cooperstown (sorry, it'll be the Redbirds), Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rogers summed up the moment nicely: "For once, Chicagoans and their St. Louis friends can cheer the same result."

Who's next? Outfielder Andre Dawson, who finished fourth in the balloting this year, has a shot next year, although it will be hard to gain votes with so many writers voting for newly eligible Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, and Mark McGwire. Ripken could be a unanimous choice -- they might as well print the ballots with an "X" in the box next to his name -- and Gwynn should make it easily, but I wonder whether there will be some backlash against McGwire due to drug controversy. Whatever happens, Dawson may have to wait until at least 2008.

So when will the Cubs get a third baseman into the Hall? The veterans don't vote again until 2007, so let's hope This Old Cub, Ron Santo, can hang on until then and finally get what he deserves.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sorry, Craig, I Can't Take It

Since Craig Ferguson was hosting the People's Choice Awards tonight, I thought I'd try watching it. I was already watching NCIS anyway. Pauley Perrette just cracks me up. Well, as you might guess from the timestamp of this entry, I didn't make it. Not even close. The People's Choice Awards were the most inane spectacle I've seen in a long time.

The show began with Jessica Simpson, so it was probably doomed from the start. Then Ferguson did an introductory monologue that wasn't particularly inspired. As a regular viewer of The Late Late Show, I recognized a lot of recycled material, and it wasn't even his best stuff.

First award: leading lady. Nominees: Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Renee Zellweger. Well, Cameron is just "okay" in my book, and I can't stand to look at Renee's mousy face and squinty eyes. And Walk the Line was a way bigger movie than the ones those two were in (I thought the only thing Zellweger did this year was get her marriage to that guy with the cowboy hat over his eyes annulled). Heck, my parents still haven't seen Walk the Line because even last weekend it was sold out, and it's been in theaters for a while. Plus Reese had to work way harder than those other two. She had to learn how to sing -- like June Carter, no less. Duh, Reese Witherspoon won, probably by a landslide.

Going into the first commercial break, some bubblehead was in the audience talking to Teri Hatcher about her nice hair. Then she announced that a hair product company was sponsoring a "best hair" award. But she was such a tease -- she wouldn't announce the winner until after the commercial break. Sheesh. Nominees: Faith Hill, Jennifer Garner, Nicole Kidman. Are you kidding me? I mean, I've always had a thing for Nicole Kidman, but I've never thought she had nice hair. Usually it's stringy, wiry or thin. And I hate it when she's blonde (though she once did a photo shoot with black hair that looked even worse). I've always had a thing for Jennifer Garner, too, but hair was never really a part of the attraction. So I suppose that leaves Faith Hill, if I cared.

I didn't. As soon as the hair commercial started (featuring -- what a shock -- Teri Hatcher), I said hasta la vista to Craig and the People's Choice Awards. On the bright side, Dr. Phil is going to be on The Late Late Show tonight. That should be entertaining since he's one of Ferguson's favorite impersonation subjects.

Maybe He Shouldn't Have Appealed

Whenever a pro cyclist gets caught with an illegal substance in his blood or urine, he or she inevitably appeals the charge and/or sentence. Fighting it is pretty much the only way a rider can maintain innocence or feign integrity -- if you don't appeal, you may as well brand "doper" on your forehead. The only other strategy I've seen is virginal contrition: "I'm so sorry I did it, this was the first and only time I ever used drugs, why was I so stupid?" Of course, the cynics among us translate that as "I'm so sorry I got caught, this was the first and only time I ever got caught using drugs, why was I so stupid to get caught?"

Sometimes appeals are successful. Anomalies are found in testing procedures, false positives are identified, lapses in protocol occur, etc. As for sentencing, sometimes a cyclist can get his suspension reduced or at least changed to start the day after he stopped racing rather than the day he was found guilty. This was the case with David Millar, who may race the Tour de France this year thanks to his sentence being applied retroactively (he also tried to get his sentence reduced but failed).

Anyway, the appeal strategy backfired terribly this week for Danilo Hondo. He was hoping for an acquittal because although he tested positive for the stimulant Carphedon, there supposedly wasn't enough present to provide any performance gain. Alas, the Court of Arbitration for Sport instead determined that Hondo had been under-sentenced with a one-year suspension when he should have been suspended for two years. In addition to the two-year suspension, Hondo cannot race in the Pro Tour (the top level of pro cycling) for another two years. Oops. Hondo had hoped to return to his Gerolsteiner team in April, but now he may not be back at all.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Two Problems with The 40 Year-Old Virgin

Overall, I liked The 40 Year-Old Virgin. I mean, it's from a predictable genre, but it had some good laughs. It was worth seeing once. There were, however, two issues in this movie that really irritated me.

First, some characters in the movie make Andy (Steve Carell) out to be a loser because he doesn't have a car and rides a bike instead. Riding a bike doesn't make you a loser, a failure, or a virgin. Neither does not owning a car. There were years when I had a successful business and a six-figure income, and I didn't own a car. And guess what? I got laid too! Sometimes the auto-centrism of our society gets on my nerves. It's as if you're "nothing" without a car. Hardly.

Second, the movie demonizes pornography. When Andy's girlfriend finds the porn that his friend gave him, she wigs out and asks if he's a freak (or weirdo, whatever) just because he has porn. Sheesh, lady, grow up. It's a $12 billion industry, and there just aren't enough freaks out there to be spending that much. Come on, it wasn't even freaky porn, it was just regular stuff (I'd give examples of freaky, but my mom reads this blog). One more thing: if Andy had been a porn consumer prior to that fateful card game when his inexperience was revealed, he probably would have been able to bluff his way through it instead. Any Penthouse Letters story would have worked in that situation (unless one of the other guys had read that letter before!).

Bofus?

Catching up again -- this is from the week before Christmas...

It's the punchline to a crude, offensive joke, but for some odd reason that word has become a part of the family lexicon. And so years ago when Ford introduced a car called the Focus, my Fordophile family said I would have to get one someday. I even joked about making a "Bofus?" bumper sticker to put below the nameplate.

The last time I bought a car, it was a new 1993 Probe GT. I was fresh out of college and needed reliable transportation for the long commute to my first programming job (80 miles round-trip on the suburban tollways). The car was a blast to drive. It had foot-wide tires and cornered like it was on rails. Then I moved to the city and didn't need a car anymore. After a few months of making payments on a car I never drove (I left it at my parents' house), I dumped it through a broker who was a truly despicable human being. It was an inglorious end to my years as an auto enthusiast. Since then, my attitude toward cars has changed. I still enjoy driving, but I view cars in a more utilitarian role now.

I always saw my wife's 1996 Plymouth Neon (which predated our relationship) as just that -- basic transportation. It gets you from A to B at a reasonable cost, and that's all that matters. Even when I was making big bucks (the years leading to Y2K were lucrative for computer consultants), I never had the urge to buy an expensive car. So as the Neon's repair bills piled up, I set my sights on something practical, something well-rated but inexpensive. Good fuel mileage would be a plus, and ideally I could transport my bike inside without dismantling it. With special year-end, no-haggle pricing near dealer cost, the Ford Focus hatchback moved to the top of my list. Even Consumer Reports, notorious for favoring Japanese reliability, picked the Focus as the best in its class. When I went to Ford's web site, I was amazed that I could search Ford dealer inventory online and even view a mock price sticker so I could see every option and feature.

I thought we should pick out the car together since my wife will be the primary driver. That was a recipe for disaster. My wife knows as much about cars as I know about horses, maybe even less than I know about horses. I thought it was odd that my wife had bought the Neon at age 28 with her dad (it never occurred to me to ask my dad to come with when I bought my Probe GT at age 22), but now I understand why. It really amazes me -- how many women actually need a man to buy a car, be it a husband, father or friend? I thought it was a sexist stereotype to make jokes about women buying cars based on the paint color, but for some the truth is not far off.

To make a long story short, we bought a silver 5-door Focus SES. It has automatic transaxle, A/C, power everything, tilt wheel, 16" wheels, AM/FM CD player, remote keyless entry, etc. That's more than we really needed, but I guess it's okay. My wife wanted the 5-door instead of the 3-door, which cost us an extra $1000. The only option we didn't get was anti-lock brakes. For some reason my wife didn't seem to want them (of course, if either of us ever gets into an accident because the car couldn't stop quickly enough, it will be all her fault).

The purchase process was much faster and simpler than when I helped my grandmother-in-law buy a car a few years ago (that "can't buy a car without a man" thing runs in the family!). We filled out a loan application although we planned to finance through a credit union. We put a $500 down payment on a credit card and they told us we could take the car. That seemed weird to us to take the car without paying or financing, so we planned to pick it up a few days later instead. By then we had secured financing through my credit union (by the way, my wife's credit union never even returned our phone call). Although Ford Credit was offering 2.9%, it was cheaper to finance it separately and take the "cash back" option. We got 5.14% for three years. At times like this it's nice to have good credit!

So far, so good. The water pump doesn't leak. The gauges always work. And I'll bet that when it gets warmer the A/C will work too. It's amazing what we've learned to put up with driving an older car.

UPDATE - 01/12/2006 - My friend Chris pointed out that Co-Motion, makers of my favorite bicycle, used to make a tandem called the Bofus! I wonder how many Bofus owners didn't even know the joke. That reminds me, I am no longer officially a bike geek -- you know you're a bike geek when your bike is worth more than your car. For the three years that I had both, my Americano was worth much more than the Neon (my biggest accident fear in that car was that I might get rear-ended with the bike on the rack!).

Friday, January 06, 2006

Newspaper Writers: Full Time Vs. Freelance

In response to a reader who was disgusted by the writing of one of the Chicago Tribune's newest freelancers, disc jockey Steve Dahl, Eric Zorn made this comment in his blog:

...in general, it's scary for us and not good for the reading public when freelancers and stringers begin to fill roles and space in the paper traditionally or formerly filled by full timers. Freelancers and stringers can be very talented, of course, but in the long run newspaper journalism, if it's to continue to attract talent and keep the quality high, has to be a steady gig that pays OK.
Now perhaps I am biased as a potential Tribune freelancer, but the former computer programmer in me wonders, Why should you guys be so special? Why shouldn't you have the same anxieties about your decent middle-class jobs being farmed out to people willing to work without paid benefits? That's where the rest of America's middle class is right now -- either already outsourced, afraid of being outsourced, or working as a freelancer, consultant, etc. It just strikes me as naive to expect oneself or one's profession to be exempt from the new rules of American business. That is not to say that outsourcing is necessarily a good thing -- often it just plain sucks -- but it's a reality.

I also take issue with Zorn's contention that it is "not good for the reading public." There are plenty of magazines out there that produce consistent, high quality publications using mostly freelance writers. Why couldn't a newspaper achieve this? All it takes is an editor with a keen sense of his/her readership who can assemble a solid stable of writers. One could argue that readers benefit from a broader range of opinions. That's one reason the Tribune publishes guest editorials. And of course, freelancers cast a wider net, which is why the Tribune uses freelancers in sections like Travel. Undoubtedly benefits can be cited for staff and freelancers, but the claim that freelancers aren't good for the readers reeks of elitism (incidentally the same sort of elitist contempt that some journalists (not Zorn, to his credit) harbor toward bloggers).

At least Zorn admits that "it's scary" -- damn right, it's scary. Just ask my former colleagues in information technology. First employees feared losing their jobs to consultants. Not long after that happened, domestic consultants feared losing their jobs to consultants with H-1B visas (essentially indentured servants, they often work for much lower pay). And then when that came to pass, H-1B workers eventually lost their jobs (and their visas) when companies shifted to off-shore resources. (One could compare this to the progression of factory jobs from union to non-union to Mexico/China.) For me the writing was on the wall when I started seeing consulting gigs that began with six months here and ended with six months in Bangalore (the latter to be paid in Indian rupees!). At least newspaper journalism is safe in that respect -- it would be hard to write about Chicago from New Delhi.

What about the original outsourced journalism, wire services (i.e, Associated Press)? While I appreciate reading a diversity of voices telling a story, each offering a different take and employing a different mix of facts, one could argue whether there is much to be gained by multiple newspapers paying their own reporters to be on the scene when they could run wire copy instead. I suspect that many newspapers with smaller budgets or less competition do just that. And of course, columnists are often syndicated, which is just another flavor of freelancing. The Tribune uses plenty of Associated Press stories and syndicated columnists already.

I know that Zorn wants to justify and keep his job. But the attitude that staff cannot be replaced is such a tired lament in the 2000s. Many professions went through this in the 1990s, and factory workers have been behind this eight ball for 20-30 years. Outsourcing can be done well or poorly, but it is virtually inevitable in today's business environment. When freelancers are writing 90% of the articles in the Tribune, will we look back at Zorn's words the way we look at those of American autoworkers who once claimed the Japanese would never build better cars?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Detroit's Image Problem

Here's a pair of stories that I'll nominate for the first Bad Timing Award of 2006:

You can almost hear the City Fathers: "Move along now, nothing to see here, pay no attention to that bleeding rapper..."

Actually, music is a great way to illustrate where Detroit has been and where it is now. About 45 years ago Berry Gordy, Jr., started Motown Records. With legends such as Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, Motown virtually defined black popular music in the 1960s and into the 1970s. In the late 1960s, Detroit spawned such rock legends as Bob Seger, the MC5 (overrated IMHO), and of course, the Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent (formerly of the Amboy Dukes). Three decades later, Seger is boring and semi-retired, Nugent has moved to Texas, Motown Records was sold long ago, and the city is best known for Eminem, Kid Rock, and the White Stripes. Although I like some of Eminem's songs, let's face it -- Detroit has been on a downward slide for decades.

A friend once explained the problem with Detroit. When "white flight" happened in Chicago, the people moved to the suburbs. When it happened in Detroit, the people moved to the suburbs and took the businesses and cultural attractions with them. So while downtown Chicago still attracted suburbanites by day with thousands of jobs, shopping, museums, theaters, etc., downtown Detroit had little to offer. (Certainly a number of Chicago businesses have emigrated to the suburbs over the years, but plenty of jobs remain downtown.)

I've only been to Detroit once, as the coda of a long weekend in Dearborn visiting the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. I'm sure I wasn't there long enough to give the city a fair assessment, but what I saw was pretty damn bleak: wide, empty streets lined with vacant lots and dilapidated buildings. Even the expressways were crumbling (the article notes that I-94 and I-96 have been repaired lately).

So I don't really know; maybe Detroit has changed for the better in the six years since I was there. But stories about rappers getting shot on the freeways aren't going to help the city change my mind.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Holidays on Ice

No, I didn't see an ice skating show -- I bought this petite sampler of six Christmas stories by David Sedaris. I've heard tapes of Sedaris doing readings at bookstores, and I really liked them. At Barnes & Noble a few days before Christmas, I saw this book and started reading parts of the first story, "SantaLand Diaries." It was hilarious, and I decided to buy the book. By the way, this isn't a new release; it's been out in paperback since 1998.

Holidays on Ice is okay, but it could have been much better. "SantaLand Diaries" is easily the cream of the crop, a delightful chronicle of the life of a Macy's elf that is rather like "Miracle on 34th Street: the Untold Story." The second story, framed as a twisted Christmas letter (a genre begging for satire), is darker but still entertaining. The book declines through the following stories, with the rambling, obtuse "Based Upon a True Story" being the nadir. The final selection, "Christmas Means Giving," is amusing in a morbid sense like the second story, though it tries a bit too hard.

On the back page of Holidays on Ice, there is a photo of the audio version of the book. While the paperback cover shows a holiday glass filled with some liquid and ice cubes (I'd guess liquor, but maybe that's just my idea of getting through the holidays), the audiobook package shows Santa Claus standing at a urinal (with an empty one on either side, as is the guy code). Intriguing. I had never thought about Santa using the urinal. Could you imagine a little boy coming up to him and asking for gifts while he's trying to do his business? And what if Santa has a shy bladder? It's probably best for department store Santas to have their own private toilet facilities, or at least something apart from the customers. Besides, you wouldn't want an impressionable young kid to see Santa adjusting his fake beard in the mirror.

All in all, Holidays on Ice is an uneven book. Since the first two stories originally appeared in Sedaris' Barrel Fever, one might be better off buying that instead. It's only a few dollars more than the $8.99 Holidays on Ice.