Saturday, April 29, 2006

Conservation, Not Legislation

Nothing brings out the stupids in lawmakers more than runaway gas prices. I've heard so many ill-conceived proposals in the past week that I can't keep track of all of them. Let's just hope a majority of legislators have some common sense and don't actually pass these laws. That's a lot to ask these days.

Where did this gas rebate plan come from? The Republicans, who supposedly don't approve of government handouts, want to give $100 rebates to taxpayers to help pay for their gas? The same people who wanted to cut everything from student loans to healthcare for the poor think it's in our national interest to compensate motorists for the rising cost of a dwindling resource. What the hell is that? And where would all that money come from? The budget surplus? Oops, there isn't one. The whole point of the Republican proposal is just to sneak in a measure to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which simply does not have enough oil to make a difference anyway. It's all political posturing for the November elections -- Democrats who oppose it will be portrayed as "cheating hard-working Americans" out of gas price relief offered so generously by the Republicans.

The dumbest idea (drum roll, please) has to be suspending state or federal gas taxes. This is the lowest sort of pandering there is. Lawmakers (including Democrats in Congress and in Pennsylvania) see the November election looming and figure they will win if they can push a law like this through the system. Said lawmakers apparently don't realize that gas taxes do not exist simply to make consumers pay more; those funds are used to build and maintain roads. If a tax is suspended for only a month, that's an 8.3 percent cut in funding for the year. To make matters worse, many are calling for two or more months. A lot of state governments are barely in the black these days (Pennsylvania is projecting a surplus, but President Bush can show you how easily that can disappear), and of course the federal government has overspent into a record deficit. If that money doesn't come from gas taxes, there is nowhere else to get it. And it isn't as if our highway infrastructure is in such great condition that we should defer maintenance.

And what happens if gas prices don't go down? Will there be another rebate? Will gas taxes be suspended again? Eventually we'll all have to drive SUVs because the roads will deteriorate too much to drive regular automobiles on them. There is one surefire solution to rising gas costs -- drive less. Nine out of ten Americans will probably say, "I can't." And at least eight of those nine will be liars:
  • "I have to drive Precious to school!" Why can't she ride the bus?
  • "Johnny has to go to soccer practice!" So does the kid down the street. Why can't you split the driving with his parents?
  • "I have to get to work!" Maybe you should move closer. Barring that, assuming public transportation isn't available, why don't you carpool?
  • "I have to get a loaf of bread!" Why didn't you pick one up on the way home from work? (My neighbors come and go five times or more every Saturday. Don't tell me they couldn't combine some trips.)
I haven't even mentioned walking, bicycling, or going inside instead of idling in the drive-through line. All of these lifestyle changes make a hell of a lot more sense than suspending fuel taxes or deepening our deficit to hand out gas rebates.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dueling Dwarfs

The Chicago Tribune reports that the dwarf wrestlers planning to appear tonight at Bar Chicago on Division Street should expect to be protested by a similarly sized activist named Gary Arnold. Arnold abhors the use of the word "midget" to promote these events because her perceives it as a slur. Plus he thinks the show is just about ridiculing people because of their size.

I think I'd have to side with the wrestlers. If they are able to turn their genetic situation into a way to make money, then that's great. All wrestling beyond college and the Olympics is about showmanship anyway. And that's synonymous with self-promotion and self-exploitation. If these guys aren't being forced against their will, who cares? It's not something I would watch, but I don't watch steroid-loaded, oversized, musclehead pro wrestlers either.

Likewise, if the wrestlers don't mind being called midgets, why should Arnold force his opinion about the word on them? If someone calls Arnold a midget, he can be offended. If someone calls the wrestlers midgets and they don't mind, why should Arnold have anything to do with it?

The big winner in this "controversy" is Bar Chicago. I had never even heard of the place, much less the "entertainment" they offer, before this story erupted in print and on local television.

Of course, the thought on every guy's mind upon reading this story is, What about midget porn? Again, that's not my thing, but this guy would be pretty upset if protesters like Arnold put a stop to it.

Lyrics of the Day

I'm adding another recurring feature today. For those who want insight into my twisted mind ("If you can take a man's life for the thoughts that's in his head" -- Bruce Springsteen, "Johnny 99"), the Lyrics of the Day will be whatever floats through my head. Sometimes I will add commentary; sometimes I'll just let the words speak for themselves. By the way, if anyone has a favorite lyrics Web site that doesn't have pop-ups and other garbage, please let me know.

Today's lyrics are from "Andy's Chest" by Lou Reed:

If I could be anything in the world that flew
I would be a bat and come swooping after you
and

Cause you know what they say about honey bears
When you shave off all their baby hair
You have a hairy minded pink bare bear
I haven't listened to this goofy but catchy song in years, and I don't know what made me think of it today in the shower. "Andy's Chest" appears on Transformer, which also includes the classic "Walk on the Wild Side." The cover shows the cadaverous Reed of the early 1970s that my mom loves... to make fun of. I have almost all of his albums, including a rare vinyl copy of the self-titled first record, but I haven't bought his last few CDs.

Reed also performed "Andy's Chest" with the Velvet Underground. That version was recorded earlier but released later, on VU. Incidentally, it does not appear on the five-disc Peel Slowly and See box set, which includes almost everything else the Velvets recorded.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Today's bastard is a familiar one... Yes, once again President George W. Bush is the Bastard of the Day. Only a tool of the petroleum industry could look at current gasoline prices, weigh them against record profits for the oil companies (Exxon made the greatest profit of any company in history last year), and decide that the problem is that environmental requirements are too strict!

Frankly, I'm a free market guy when it comes to gas (not so much when it comes to other things, like healthcare). I live in the city, I use public transportation, and I walk to the grocery store unless I'm stocking up on heavy stuff. My wife drive 3.5 miles to work and I work at home (of course, last summer working on my book was a different story). We go through a tank of gas every 10-14 days, so a few extra dollars at the pump won't kill us (don't bother telling me that all prices will go up because of oil prices; I've already written about that). I think gas is still too cheap in America, and cheap gas has been abetting suburban sprawl and poor land use decisions for too long. Americans would be better off living closer together instead of being isolated in McMansions and driving ridiculous distances to work to pay for them. Automobiles are such a part of American mythology that they symbolize freedom when in fact, people are slaves to purchasing, fueling, insuring, and maintaining them.

Bush and his henchmen are almost always free market true believers. Heck, Republicans have been deregulating everything in sight since the Reagan years, all in the name of almighty free market capitalism. So we shouldn't be surprised that the only time Bush is willing to interfere with free markets is when he can strip away more of those pesky environmental regulations, the ones that coincidentally restrain the greenhouse effect, which Bush will tell you doesn't exist.

Of course, that's not all Bush is doing. He is also going to stop contributing to our strategic petroleum reserve to make more oil available. But Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Nuaimi says that a supply shortage is not the reason for high oil prices. And isn't this the same strategic petroleum reserve that Bush scoffed at Gore for proposing to draw from in order to lower oil prices six years ago? You can say there is a difference between not contributing oil to it and withdrawing oil from it, but isn't that really just splitting hairs?

Bush also talks a good game about alternative fuels. But if he had promoted those fuels when he came into office rather than jumping on the bandwagon only this year, we would be a lot closer to actually using those alternatives today.

For what it's worth, the experts agree with me that Bush isn't really solving any problems here. He's just making life a little easier (and richer) for his cronies, the underlying objective of every policy decision he has ever made. For that, George "32% approval rating" Bush is a bastard, today and every day.

Postscript: I couldn't help laughing at the photo Reuters chose for the expert story linked above: "Gas prices are displayed at a 76 station in Beverly Hills, California, April 25, 2006." Do you think the average American is shedding any tears over high prices in Beverly Hills?!? Well, okay, maybe there are maids and landscapers who work there shedding tears, but that's about it.

UPDATE 04/26/2006 - Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch dispels several of Bush's myths about the oil industry and high gas prices.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sorry, Chuck

I may have to rethink my feelings about corporate prostitute Gale Norton's performance as Secretary of the Interior. Sure, she allowed and indeed facilitated an awful lot of damage to federal lands under her stewardship, but at least she made the right call about Soldier Field's national historic landmark status -- she revoked it. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin's delight is palpable in his article about the decision, a clear vindication of his opinion. Mayor Daley never should have allowed this misguided project to go forward, but instead he supported it wholeheartedly. The end result is, in Kamin's words, like "Starship Enterprise crash-landed atop the Parthenon."

I have a friend named Chuck who worked as an architect on the Soldier Field desecration project (incidentally, he used to like Kamin until he started criticizing the new Soldier Field). Thus far I have been polite whenever the topic has come up in conversation. But right now, I'm going to let him have it:
I know you were just following orders and working within the parameters you were given, but damn, that is one ugly stadium. I'm sure it is a pleasantly modern environment for the fans inside, but everyone who passes that place is either appalled by its clash of styles or simply depressed by the memory of the original.
The mistake by the lake, the eyesore on the lake shore, a spoiled memorial to those who died in the Great War. Sorry, Chuck.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Buying Ourselves Into a Corner

A lengthy article by Michael Klare discusses the Bush administration's plans to contain China -- to keep it from becoming a superpower on our level. This isn't exactly news to those who follow foreign policy, but most Americans don't pay much attention.

While the story is worth reading, Klare does not address the 800-pound gorilla in the room. If we wanted to prevent China from rising to the level of economic and military superpower, why did we shift so much of our production to their factories? We are funding the rise of China! Whenever you buy a computer, a stereo, a lawn chair, or anything else made in China, you are giving China the means with which to develop or procure the advanced weaponry they need to challenge us. Of course, greedy corporations in search of cheap labor have made it difficult not to give money to China. If China does indeed challenge U.S. hegemony, future historians will point to the first decade of the millennium as the time when our consumer urges trumped common sense. Whatever we save buying Chinese goods and whatever corporations save in labor costs, we will spend far more in taxes to support the military build-up necessary to contain an ascendant China. Should a real conflict arise between the two nations, we may discover that it wasn't such a good idea to close all of our domestic factories in a race to cheap labor after all.

Not only are we funneling cash to this potential threat, but as our national debt grows to outrageous levels (thanks to the Bush administration's shortsighted policies), the Chinese are buying an ever-greater ownership stake in our country. This is what economists call "grabbing us by the short and curlies" (you can look it up). China has gained quite a bit of negotiating power by taking on our debt. If we threaten them with military action, they don't even need to mobilize their armed forces. They could more effectively mobilize their bankers to disrupt our economy. Can you imagine how people would have reacted upon learning that the U.S.S.R. held so much financial control over America during the Cold War? Why doesn't anyone care that China has maneuvered itself into such a powerful position?

The China containment policy detailed in Klare's article is understandable, but clearly this is a problem of our own making. This has become a recurring theme in U.S. foreign policy. We trained Osama Bin Laden, we armed Saddam Hussein, and now we're creating a monster in China. Why are we signing trade agreements and enacting fiscal policies that help them toward the goal we wish to discourage? With the U.S. and China competing for the same dwindling natural resources, a collision is virtually unavoidable. And when it happens, China will not be easily subdued.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Cardinal Condones Condoms

Cynics say the Roman Catholic Church opposes birth control because they want more Catholics in the world. They might consider these statements from a prominent cardinal in that same vein:
"We must do everything to fight AIDS," said Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan, in Italy's L'Espresso newsweekly. "Certainly, the use of condoms can constitute in certain situations a lesser evil."
The Church knows that AIDS, if allowed to continue unabated, is going to wipe out the population of Africa. Africa is one of the few places where the Church still has the potential to save a lot of souls. Alas, AIDS is probably killing Africans faster than the missionaries can convert them. Once again, that might be a cynic's viewpoint. I'd prefer to believe the Church is simply looking out for all of humankind, albeit addressing the AIDS crisis a little late.

Allowing condom use is a pragmatic solution, but the cardinal's comments must be kept in context. This is not a statement in favor of birth control, as the TV news tried to spin it last night. Lest we get the impression that we can wear condoms and fornicate with wanton abandon, the cardinal carefully pointed out that he was speaking specifically of married couples where one spouse is HIV-positive. Even then, one cardinal, no matter how senior, does not necessarily speak for the whole Church. So the folks at Trojan had better hold off on affixing those "Catholic approved" labels.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Biking Illinois Availability

I went to lunch with a bunch of old friends from my running days today. I thought I'd be doing my first book signing, too, but no one had bought the book yet! Oh well, I had a sample copy to pass around that maybe helped the fence-sitters decide to buy. Like I said, "Well, it's got great maps and some nice pictures, even if the writing is crap!"

Next on my agenda after lunch (it wasn't really lunch for me since I didn't eat, but I watched others eat) was a survey of downtown book stores. First I went to Borders on State Street, which had six or seven copies of my book on the shelf. Then I went to After-words, an independent store across the street from the American Medical Association, where I used to consult. They didn't have it. I had hoped to dazzle the owner with my sample copy, but she wasn't there. Instead, someone gave me her business card and suggested that I e-mail her about it.

After eating lunch for real, I headed into Borders on Michigan Avenue, a huge store that does tons of business, probably more than any other book store in the city though I can't prove it. I was happy to see six or seven copies of my book there. I was less happy to see a hardcover edition on the bargain table of a book I had just purchased for full price in paperback at After-words. On the bright side, I had a credit balance at After-words from selling them used books, so at least I didn't hand over twice as much cash for the paperback (it's weak, but it's all I've got so humor me). Next I went to Barnes & Noble on Rush Street. That store had three copies of my book with the cover facing outward. I hopped on the L and rode home, stopping at The Book Cellar (which isn't actually in a cellar, for what it's worth), my nearest store. I explained that I was a local author with a new book, and the cashier had me leave a note for the owner with my name and number.

So the bottom line is that the big chains have it, which bodes well. Most people who don't buy it online will look for it at Borders or Barnes & Noble, and they should find it. Plus people who don't know about it can discover it while browsing there. I'll have to work on the independents, but all in all, I'm happy. I feared that it wasn't in any stores!

By the way, it took a couple of weeks, but Amazon.com has the cover photo now, as you can see to the right.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

My Finger on the Pulse of America

No, really. At least this once. The Chicago Tribune had a teaser on its homepage:
The Unsexiest Man in the World is...
And I blurted out the correct answer! I didn't even have a second guess; it was like I just knew. I didn't even think enough people knew Gilbert Gottfried's name to vote for him, but who else could it be? Okay, maybe Michael Jackson, but he's not so much unsexy as nonsexy, just androgynously unappealing. The funny thing is, Gottfried isn't even seen much these days, just heard. It's interesting that aural unsexiness is enough to win the prize. I suppose it is an encouraging sign for our society, however, that people are not sexually aroused by the voice of a duck.

Monday, April 17, 2006

My First Review

Yesterday, Outdoors Editor Doug Goodman reviewed Biking Illinois in the Rockford Register Star. The review is available online. Of course it's positive -- would I be telling you about it here if it wasn't?

Goodman interviewed me via e-mail, and I was surprised that a lot of my responses were included in the article. I figured he'd pick out just a sentence or two. Advice to anyone who wants to review my book: just send me a list of questions, and I'll give you enough to write a good portion of the article for you!

My only quibble is that toward the end of the article my name mysteriously changed to "Andersen." Aw heck, all those Scandihoovians are the same, right? He probably confused me with Hans Christian. Happens all the time.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Bastard of the Day

I'm sorry. I know this is starting to get old, but once again EarthLink is my Bastard of the Day. You see, I now have a new occupation. It is my full-time job to babysit my DSL modem and recycle and/or reset it whenever it randomly disconnects. Better yet, maybe I have to recycle it twice, or maybe I have to utter some incantation like, "Reconnect, you worthless piece of ____!" Sometimes it happens every hour or two. Sometimes it's every five minutes. There is no rhyme or reason, so maybe that's why EarthLink tech support has been so utterly useless in addressing my problem. They recently sent me a new modem and cajoled me into committing to another year with them by offering to waive the $50 cost. The bastards still made me pay 20 bucks for shipping, though. Don't tell me they didn't make money on that deal -- a two-pound modem via UPS Ground for $20!

I have been a loyal and satisfied EarthLink customer for more than four years now. But I can no longer recommend their service due to their inability to keep me online. In the last three hours, my connection has dropped at least a dozen times. Make that at least thirteen, since it just happened again. It has gotten so bad that I don't click on a link without glancing at my modem first to make sure it hasn't disconnected in the last few seconds. Naturally, the file I was downloading at that moment was lost. My odds of still being connected in 15 minutes when that huge file is expected to finish are pretty slim.

I am going to call tech support again, which is always fruitless. First they'll ask me stupid questions like, "Is your computer turned on?" I have already reorganized my office to avoid any conflicts between the modem and other electronics, but they'll ask me about all that stuff, too. Then they'll make me run all over the house plugging my modem into every outlet. And they'll tell me nothing is wrong, which clearly is not the case. Never will they give me any explanation for why it works just fine for several days straight and then goes to crap. After wasting another two hours of my life, they will promise to have someone look into it, and soon I'll get a phone call telling me I need yet another modem. So I will wait for the new modem, dutifully install it... and have the same damn disconnect problem I had before. I'll call EarthLink again and they'll say it must be the 900 MHz cordless phone I'm using. But the only time I use that phone anywhere near the computer is when I'm calling tech support!

In the meantime, I've been throwing stuff around my office, cursing at the top of my lungs -- damn it, make that at least sixteen disconnects -- and generally giving my wife grounds for divorce. If I didn't mind the eight-hour downloads, I would seriously consider going back to 56K right now.

The conspiracy theorist in me is courting the idea that AT&T/SBC is messing with the lines of EarthLink customers in hopes of getting them to switch to their own DSL service. Of course, I'd never be able to prove it.

Race to Wrigley 5K Run/Walk: Not Walker-Friendly

The shirts were top notch, Nike DRI-fit with minimal advertising. Having Wayne Messmer sing the national anthem before the start was a nice touch, as was the finale through the west side of Wrigley Field. But overall, there was a lot more to dislike about today's Race to Wrigley 5K Run/Walk.

The course map provided at packet pick-up looked interesting, and it included the beautiful block of rowhouses on Alta Vista Terrace north of the ballpark. I was looking forward to that. The course also went around Graceland Cemetery, where many famous Chicagoans are buried. Come race day, however, a mere 36 hours later, all that had been changed. The new course basically went back and forth on Clark and Addison Streets. In other words, all the attractive segments of the course except the ballpark had been exorcised, and I'm sure the fast runners were not thrilled with the three 180-degree turns to break their strides on the new route. I can understand that courses sometimes must be changed, but to make such a drastic alteration so close to the race day is practically a bait-and-switch tactic. Instead of spending much of our time on quiet, residential streets, we were on major through-streets.

This event was marketed as a run/walk. So why were walkers shunned to the sidewalks within the first mile? I can understand that when walkers participate in a run, they shouldn't expect the police to keep the course open for their pace. But when "walk" is explicitly part of the event name, this is unacceptable (our pace wasn't that slow for a walk, around 15-16 minutes per mile). Of course, it would have been easier to keep the streets closed longer had the event followed the original, more residential route. Walkers also found scant refreshments at the finish. I wouldn't drink an iced latte if you paid me, but there were supposed to be iced lattes, Gatorade, bagels, and fruit at the finish. I saw lots of not-so-tasty bagels and some apples, plus people were passing out Trader Joe's trail mix. I suppose we were lucky to finish when we did because I wasn't done choking down my bagel before they starting packing up the food. Again, if you are calling it a run/walk, you have an obligation to serve those who choose to walk.

My mom had problems with the registration (they lost my brother's application), but I understand that accidents happen. On the other hand, they didn't score any points by doubting her word even as she spent all day Friday jumping through hoops via phone and fax for Chicago Special Events Management (CSEM) to secure his entry, which she had already paid for along with her own weeks earlier. CSEM organizes a lot of running and walking events every year. That makes the Race to Wrigley especially disappointing. If the organizers had never put on a 5K before, their shortcomings would have been more forgivable.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Outdoorsmen Finally Wake Up To Bush B.S.

Kudos to Field & Stream for their editorial blasting the Bush/Cheney sell-off of federal lands to corporate energy interests:
Rod and gun in hand, and backing the Second Amendment right to own firearms, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have won the hearts of America’s sportsmen. Yet the two men have failed to protect outdoor sports on the nation’s public lands. With deep ties to the oil and gas industry, Bush and Cheney have unleashed a national energy plan that has begun to destroy hunting and fishing on millions of federal acres throughout the West, setting back effective wildlife management for decades to come.
My only question for the editors is, what took you so long? In the very next paragraph they note that Bush's energy policy began to develop two weeks after he was inaugurated. Surely it didn't take five years of implementation before outdoorsmen could see it was going to be a raw deal. I am getting tired of all these people coming out of the woodwork now to protest things that were just as true in 2004 when their opinions could have influenced the election.

The editorial goes on to give several specific examples showing how the Bush administration's energy policy is destroying good hunting grounds by spooking, exposing, or killing fish and wildlife. Too bad they limited their scope to energy because plenty of other corporate players are vying for rights to federal lands as well. Sportsmen in Montana have become so fed up with the privatization and corporatization of public lands that they starting electing Democrats to stop it.

What outdoorsmen forget is that the people in office are not like them. They may have guns and fishing rods, but they don't have to hunt on federal land -- Cheney shot that guy's face while hunting on a private ranch in Texas. What does Cheney care if Exxon/Mobil takes over a few million acres of BLM land? It's not his loss. The administration is giving it away dirt-cheap, too, sometimes leasing land for energy development for as little as $2 an acre. Ordinary citizens can't even lease a tiny campsite for one night on federal land for $2.

This "sportsman's revolt" hits close to home because butt-headed pro-gun people like Field & Stream readers and my dad helped install the Bush/Cheney regime. Don't misunderstand me here. They aren't butt-heads because they are pro-gun (I don't have a strong opinion in that debate); they are butt-heads because they so believed the NRA's spin that John Kerry or Al Gore would take away their guns that they voted for Bush instead, with no regard for the consequences of his other policies. For that, perhaps they deserve the ironic fate of being able to own guns with no place to use them.

Bert Weinman Ford

We bought our Focus from Bert Weinman Ford on Ashland Avenue. I have been annoyed by many a car dealer in the past, but they were good to us. I liked everybody there and how they did business. To top it off, their location was perfect. I took our car in for its first oil change last week, and it was only a short walk to the L to come home. Then my wife took the L to pick the car up, and she was already halfway to work. I thought it was unusual for a car dealership to sprawl across so much land in a rapidly appreciating area like West Lakeview, but I figured after nearly 40 years they were a neighborhood institution and wouldn't be going anywhere.

Yesterday Bert Weinman Ford announced that they have made a deal with a real estate developer and will be closing up shop. Damn. They stopped accepting service appointments last Thursday, which means we got one of the last oil changes performed on the premises. Fortunately the scheduled maintenance plan I purchased that day is good at all Ford dealers.

Our nearest Ford dealer is actually 0.3 mile closer than Weinman, but it's straight north on Western Avenue, which isn't as convenient for us. It's been only four months since we bought the Focus so I've hardly known Bert Weinman Ford, but I'll miss them. I wish their 40 employees luck in finding another place to work.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

My Political Weakness

At a train station today, a man with a stack of flyers invited me to watch a movie about how America tortures. "I know too much already," I said with resignation as I walked past.

"Well, we have to organize to stop it," he shouted to me.

I just shook my head and called back, "We'll never stop it."

And at that moment I stood face to face with my weakness as a political animal: cynicism. I'm far too cynical to be an activist. I don't believe any of that "we can change the world" stuff that Graham Nash was singing about 35 years ago. Heck, my mom did, and look what happened. Robert Kennedy dead. Nixon in the White House. Twice.

This is not about voting. That isn't going to stop something like torture anyway -- we are stuck with this regime for three more years, with impeachment unlikely. Besides, I almost always end up voting for the lesser of two evils rather than for someone I really want. And even when it is someone I believe in, they usually let me down (did someone say "Obama?").

Cynicism personified: as much as I complain about how FUBAR everything is, I don't really think we can do anything to change it. Short of revolution, that is. But the iPod-listening, Nike-wearing, big screen TV-watching, SUV-driving American consumerist masses are too blind to even see it coming, much less support it or participate (I predict that when the inevitable class war comes, the rich will pay the other classes to die for them -- isn't that sort of what's already happening in Iraq?). We've all been played with promises of material pleasures, and now the game is rigged against us. The next step is to knock out the distracted middle class at the knees. I am convinced that this is the true agenda of the modern conservative movement. Then the Halliburtons and Enrons will finally have what they want. Today they have to buy political influence. Their ultimate dream is to be the essence of political influence -- they won't have to pay a thing because there will be no other voices to drown out.

Torture comes from the top. Bush used to blow up frogs with firecrackers as a kid. And he's the kind face on this administration. One can only imagine what sort of childhood games sadistic bastards like Cheney and Rumsfeld used to play. The "war on terror" exists because America has terrorized others through covert and not-so-covert means for generations. Do enough rotten shit, and karma will get you. That's what's happening to us now, and all we have done since 9/11 has perpetuated and amplified it. Alas, short of wiping out America's ruling class and starting over, there's no way we'll ever stop the crimes perpetrated in our names. I wish the man at the train station well, but I believe he toils in futility.

Smells Like Week-Old Sushi

As soon as I read the first sentence of Eric Zorn's blog entry yesterday about the Chicago Tribune's investigative piece on Sun Myung Moon's control over the sushi industry, I could sense that he had really "stepped in it." It's a sort of sixth sense that bloggers develop -- a way of knowing that a certain piece is going to incite a shitstorm of critical comments. My most recent example was an entry about Brokeback Mountain that drew more comments in a few hours than my entire blog gets in several weeks (and I wasn't even criticizing the movie or gays).

First of all, I agree with Zorn's position here. I have never desired to even try sushi. Heck, I don't even like cooked fish much, and with all the toxins in the water that fish soak up, that isn't necessarily a bad thing these days (I know there are health benefits, but even nutritionists warn about eating more than a couple servings a week). A friend of mine once said, "People always act shocked that I don't eat sushi, but what shocks me is that anyone would be shocked that someone wouldn't want to eat raw fish."

I have also never had a positive impression of Moon or his Unification Church. I first heard of him as a kid when they showed one of those mass weddings (not be to confused with Mass weddings) on the TV news. He always seemed like a nut (that isn't really an educated opinion, just a hunch). More recently, I have become aware of his power and influence in the American conservative movement. He owns the Washington Times and other conservative media outlets, and GOP pols regularly kiss his heinie. In that sense, he's every bit as repulsive to me as Richard Mellon Scaife, bankroller of the "vast right wing conspiracy" against the Clintons that his minions ironically claim did not exist. At least Scaife keeps a low profile, though.

At first, the response to Zorn's criticism of Moon and sushi was mixed. Some people thought it was petty to avoid sushi because of Moon. Others spoke out vociferously against Moon and his church. Some accused Zorn of being a bigot, and this sentiment magically swelled overnight to epic proportions. Yep, Eric stepped in it, all right, and the Moonies were mobilizing!

While I read those comments this morning, the title of Zorn's blog mysteriously morphed from "Change of Subject" to "Change of Shorts" as I nearly wet myself laughing so hard at the ridiculous accusations and threats leveled against him and his newspaper.

One of the best was a comment from "Joseph" of Nigeria as news of Zorn's blog piece spread around the globe: "I will mobilize Nigerian online community to disregard this piece and also stop reading the Chicago Tribune." Now I may be going to go out on a limb here, but I have a feeling that the Nigerian readership of chicagotribune.com is not exactly a key demographic. I can't imagine the head honchos saying, "We've got to get Zorn to tone it down -- we can't afford to lose the Nigerians to the Chicago Sun-Times!" Hey, maybe now the Trib won't get as many Nigerian money laundering E-mails as the rest of us do.

Zorn stuck to his guns despite the looming threat of a Nigerian boycott and wrote a column in today's paper unrepentantly reiterating his disdain for sushi, Moon, and any combination thereof. Now some commenters attempt to draw analogies between Zorn not eating Moonie sushi and Nazis exterminating the Jews. When you step in it online, the only question is how low your critics will go.

UPDATE 04/14/2006 - Well, Eric Zorn has reached his limit with the Moonies. He cut off comments this afternoon. I'm a little disappointed because I thought maybe this could break the comment record set by his "gone but not forgotten" entry (inspired by the announcement that Field's would become Macy's). On the other hand, I can see how this was becoming tedious, especially as the demographic shifted from devout sushi lovers to devout Moon defenders. I got to the point where I just skimmed for his responses and skipped over the Moonie apologia altogether. I give Zorn credit for staying reasonable in the face of religious zealotry, which can be hard to do. I can't wait for him to blog about $cientology!

Bastard of the Day

It's still early, but I've already found a winner: EarthLink is today's Bastard of the Day. Hell, let's add Microsoft, too. I'm feeling generous today.

I woke up at 6 AM and decided to send out a couple of E-mails. Outlook 2003 kept spitting them back at me with messages from "System Administrator" that my messages were undeliverable with the cryptic error "503 No recipient(s)." Well, clearly there were recipients; Outlook won't let me click "Send" without at least one recipient. I had this problem once before, and the solution was to close and reopen Outlook. No such luck this time. So I went to Microsoft's online support. I searched for "undeliverable 503," and they directed me to a page that didn't even mention "503" anywhere in the text. It was about sending E-mail from work and other stuff that didn't seem to apply. So Microsoft wins their award for this confusing and unhelpful "solution," even though ultimately it wasn't their fault my E-mail was broken.

After much resending, cursing (restrained to avoid waking up my wife, which just made me more frustrated), and banging my head against the wall (only figuratively, so I wouldn't wake up my wife), I went to EarthLink's online support center. There under "Email: Troubleshooting Problems," I clicked hopefully on "Sending email from a hotel, office, or other network (relay denied, 500 errors)." I had a 503, which is close to 500, and although I am at home, my DSL is a network, though it's the same network I've been using with EarthLink for years. But there was my solution:
EarthLink's outgoing mail servers are now using authenticated SMTP (ASMTP) to help fight spam. As a result, you must update your email settings to continue sending mail from our servers. ASMTP requires you to enter your email password before sending email. This simple step blocks unauthorized outgoing messages and helps reduce the distribution of spam.
Well, that's nice. They even had a handy applet I could download to change my Outlook 2003 settings for me. Okay, so why is EarthLink a bastard? Because they never told me they were switching to ASMTP! They just did it sometime between the last E-mail I sent (about a week ago) and today, leaving me to figure out what had changed. A simple, pre-emptive message from them would have prevented all these problems, and I could have gone back to bed for an hour or so this morning. Instead, I spent an hour trying to figure out why my E-mail was undeliverable.

I hope they will learn their lesson after taking thousands of phone calls from befuddled users who aren't willing or knowledgeable enough to hunt for a solution on their own. There was only one thing that would have made this story any more ridiculous. Alas, it appears that they did not send a message that was intercepted by their own spam filter. That would have been funny.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It Fits!

Tuesday I took my bike up to the North Branch Trail (Ride 20 from Biking Illinois for those following along at home -- this isn't some sort of book release celebration, though; these are just the trails nearby that I like to ride). It was my first time putting my Co-Motion Americano in the Focus. The main reason I wanted the hatchback was so I could transport my bike without the hassle of a trunk rack. Thank goodness it fit! I would have been pretty irritated if it didn't. There isn't as much room to spare as when I used to put my Raleigh hybrid in my 1993 Probe GT, but I think the Americano is longer and the Focus is shorter. Whatever -- it works, and I can say goodbye to bungee cords and road grime.

The ride itself was good, about 20 miles. My ankles were fine, but my sit bones were a little sore, to my surprise. That's what I get for not riding all winter. I was crushed to see the Happy Hound on Touhy Avenue was closed and for sale. Not only was I especially hungry this afternoon, but their french fries were perfect when I ate there last summer so I was really looking forward to them.

In other news, I did my first interview for the book Tuesday afternoon. I'm starting to feel like a real author!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Vulnerability

It was about four hours after a bike ride, and although I had eaten afterward, I was still depleted, maybe even light-headed. As I contemplated what to do for dinner, I decided to go through the stacks of mail piled up in our dining room.

After shredding a few credit card offers, I saw an envelope with a picture of a donkey. It was part of a mailing from Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue that my wife had opened. I knew it was going to be a sad story, one whose writer knew exactly which buttons to push and heartstrings to pull. I picked up the letter anyway. First it introduced Rawhide, an abused donkey. It told how fearful he was because of his past mistreatment, and how over time the look in his eyes told the director of Peaceful Valley what sort of trouble he had been through (which his wounds also revealed). Then the letter explained how people try to train donkeys by whipping and beating them. But donkeys don't respond to pain; they just stand there and take it, however long it goes on.

My wife always says I'm a soft touch. Although I deny it, a letter like this would probably make me misty-eyed under any circumstances. But in my condition, the tears were rolling down my face. I looked up and Rosco was looking at me. And when I looked at him, I saw Kilo, the injured and abandoned dog with distemper that had to be put down on the Animal Planet show we watched at 4 AM while waiting for Teddy at the emergency vet last August. And I started to think how the world is full of wicked assholes, and there really isn't a damned thing I can do about it. People will go on beating donkeys, abusing dogs, and killing each other.

Eating dinner wasn't going to change any of that, and I had lost my appetite. I went to bed.


Note: If you visit the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue Web site, scroll down and don't follow their advice to check out the new site -- there is a lot more information at the old one, at least for now.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Holy Moses -- She Nailed It

Writer Jennifer Moses explains very well why a Hillary Clinton presidential bid is a bad idea. I don't personally have anything against Hillary, although she doesn't strike me as the natural and charismatic leader that Bill was (okay, and as a liberal I think she's leaning too far toward the center for my tastes, especially with her unwavering support for the Iraq War). But Moses highlights what I've been telling everyone who asks (or doesn't): Hillary cannot win the middle. There is the great opportunity for Democrats in 2008 because many moderate Republicans are fed up with their party's recent shenanigans. However, the right wing noise machine spent the 1990s demonizing Hillary so well, positioning her somewhere to the left of Fidel Castro, that those voters would never switch sides for her. And contrary to what feminists might argue, it has nothing to do with her being a woman -- it's all about her being Hillary Clinton.

What scares me is that Hillary could easily win the primaries to become the 2008 Democratic nominee. I fear that shortsighted primary voters are going to condemn us to four more years of a Republican White House. At this rate we'll be lucky to survive the current administration without a devastating economic collapse, but that's a topic for another blog entry.

Back in the Saddle

I finally went for my first bike ride of the year this afternoon. With clear skies and temps in the upper sixties, I just ran out of excuses. As I said in my upbeat New Year's post, I haven't been on a bike ride since I finished Biking Illinois. And unlike other winters, I didn't ride the trainer in the basement (once for 20 minutes, but that hardly counts). Lack of cycling plus unrestrained eating has made me enormous -- just count the chins on my book's author photo (five? six? seven?). So today I set out to get back into some sort of routine that might keep me alive past age forty.

I chose an old standby, Ride 22 in my book, which is only a few blocks from home. I planned to ride no more than 12-15 miles round trip so I wouldn't be sore afterward. Spring is finally here, and I don't want to waste time whining when I could be riding. As I headed north, I felt pretty good, sometimes cruising around 17 mph on the empty sections of the asphalt path. I knew why, though, so I turned around at 5.8 miles. The return trip was a lot tougher with a headwind! I had forgotten how uncomfortable it is to ride in the drops with a big gut. It was so bad that I had to choose between aerodynamics and breathing. Naturally, breathing was a bit more important, so I cut through the wind like a giant brick.

There are signs posted telling cyclists how to follow the path across the Lincoln Avenue Bridge. I wonder how much those cost in lieu of the fully funded bridge that the alderman decided not to erect (that money was restricted and therefore lost). Cyclists have created a dirt path through the new sod to get to the street bridge since there is no direct trail bridge. On the return trip, I had to squeeze past several other trail users on the narrow sidewalk, dodging light poles and broken concrete. Thanks a lot, Mr. Crusty-Old-Alderman-Who-Should-Have-Retired-Years-Ago.

It wasn't a long ride, but it was enough to get the blood flowing, 11.6 miles in a little less than an hour (I really tanked in that headwind). Considering that I figured out afterward that I had only consumed 200-300 calories all day, it's probably just as well that I didn't go further. My left hand feels okay -- I think I damaged it while riding on the brake hoods last summer, which was one excuse to abstain from riding. The Americano seems fine although I neglected to get an off-season tune-up. My ankles usually hurt after my first few rides, but I won't know until tomorrow morning. The weather should be nice all week, so I hope to get a good start clawing my way back into a less embarrassing level of fitness. I've always been able to ride myself into shape fairly quickly, but I've never been this old or heavy...

Ever since my book came out, I have been afraid someone will invite "Mr. Biking Illinois" on a long ride, and I'll be pathetic. True, the rides in the book are short enough that I could stubbornly slog through most of them regardless, but I sure wouldn't want any witnesses!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Basking in the DeLay Afterglow

Tom DeLay's deMise has the liberal bloggers doing the happy dance. Shakespeare's Sister has a rewrite of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind:"
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a fart in the wind:
Ever stinking, odor lingering,
Even when rain set in.
And I really will not miss you,
Nor your loathsome slimy trail;
I wish you all that you deserve
As your dumb ass rots in jail.
How touching. I think I'm going to cry.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bastard of the Day

Today we honor one of the greatest bastards in a field full of them: embattled Rep. Tom DeLay. The news is that DeLay will not be running for reelection, but I have no doubt we haven't heard the last of the most corrupt former exterminator in history.

Our country will feel the pain of the legislation he rammed through Congress for years, maybe generations. Confused about Medicare prescription drug plans? Thank DeLay. Losing your job thanks to CAFTA, the worst trade agreement since NAFTA? Thank DeLay. When Congressional Republicans came up with an idea so bad that even their own kind wouldn't necessarily support it, they turned to the Hammer to deliver fence riders to the Cause. His career path led from killing bugs to killing scruples.

As Jim Hightower and others have reported, DeLay is also the poster boy for American sweatshops. When you buy that "made in U.S.A." shirt for a few dollars, don't think for a minute that it was made by garment workers on this continent. It probably came from the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory where the labor laws we take for granted stateside do not apply. Even dyed-in-the-wool conservative Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska was disturbed:
Moved by the sworn testimony of U.S. officials and human-rights advocates that the 91 percent of the workforce who were immigrants -- from China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh -- were being paid barely half the U.S. minimum hourly wage and were forced to live behind barbed wire in squalid shacks minus plumbing, work 12 hours a day, often seven days a week, without any of the legal protections U.S. workers are guaranteed, Murkowski wrote a bill to extend the protection of U.S. labor and minimum-wage laws to the workers in the U.S. territory of the Northern Marianas.
The U.S. Senate passed his bill unanimously. But the House never even considered the bill. Why not? Thank Hammerboy DeLay, lover of the good life in the Marianas, where he was regularly feted by territorial leaders and factory owners. Maybe he'll miss golfing and snorkeling in that Pacific paradise now that he is retiring. More likely, if he doesn't go to jail, he will become a lobbyist for those islands of shame.

For Tom DeLay, Bastard of the Day is too kind.

Up in ARMs

In one of a million articles you will see over the next few years, USA Today says that some homeowners are having trouble paying their adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs). None of this is news to me; it was only a matter of time. Anybody who bought or refinanced a house with an ARM in the last five years is just a damned fool. There, I said it. If you can't afford the fixed rates available since the late 1990s, you can't afford a home. I know people will give me b.s. about home ownership being "the American dream," but this is real life. Interest rates have been near historical lows for so long, apparently people have forgotten that they can -- no, they will -- go up. This whole country, government included, has been on an unsustainable, borrowing-fueled spending spree for too long. When President Bush brags about a high rate of home ownership and nearly 25% of borrowers have ARMs, he's really just bragging about a timebomb.

The article tries to get us to sympathize with an elderly couple whose ARM has gone from 7% to 10.5% in the last two years:
[Lorraine, age 72, said,] "At the time of the loan, they tell you, 'Well, it may go up, but it's probably going to go down.' You want it to be so, so you believe it."
Holy cow, did you sleep through the late 1970s??? It's one thing when 20-somethings fall for the smooth talk of mortgage lenders, but people who have lived more than a few decades have no excuse. Probably go down? Did you think the Fed was going to make interest rates go negative? There wasn't much room between the rate and zero when you got your ARM two years ago.

The housing market is going to collapse soon, and ARMs are the reason it will happen. And that makes me mad because it denies me the growth in real estate value that previous generations of Americans reaped. I wisely got a 30-year fixed mortgage at the ridiculously low rate of 5.25% a few years ago (refinanced from 7.25%, which was still a good rate). But now as interest rates rise, the idiots who got ARMs for 3% because that's all they could afford will be forced to sell or foreclose. It will be the worst disaster for the existing home market since the "white flight" of the 1950s and 1960s.

What good are ARMs in a low interest rate environment? Why let someone buy a house when he/she can't afford it over the long term? It makes the mortgage lenders happy. It makes the real estate brokers happy. It makes the sellers happy. The rest of us get screwed by their folly.

Anybody who needs an ARM to buy a home should not buy a home. Keep living in a crappy apartment for a few years until you can afford to get a fixed rate instead of playing Russian roulette with your financial future.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Hey, Look! ----->----->

Your local bookstore should have Biking Illinois: 60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides in stock or be able to order it. But if you would rather order online, look how Amazon.com has dropped the price over the weekend...



=====>>=====>>=====>>=====>>=====>>=====>>=====>>

Hey, that's less than a quarter per ride, a better deal than the mechanical pony in front of K-Mart! (And these rides last longer, too!)