Friday, June 30, 2006

"Crazy Shit Going Down" at Tour de France

Operación Puerto, a doping investigation by Spanish authorities, is wreaking havoc on the 2006 Tour de France. Things are coming to a head just as the biggest race of the year is set to start on Saturday. Tour organizers have taken an ever-tougher stance against performance-enhancing drugs since 1998, when a drug scandal nearly shut down the race. With that in mind, they have advised the teams that any rider implicated in Operación Puerto will not start the Tour de France. Note that this does not follow the American system of law -- these riders haven't been found guilty of anything yet. They are being removed from the race to avoid controversy over the results in case they are convicted in the future.

Early this morning, the T-Mobile team announced that Jan Ullrich, a perennial favorite for victory, has been suspended. I went to sleep for a few hours and awoke to learn that Ivan Basso, 2006 Giro di Italia winner and 2005 Tour runner-up to Lance Armstrong, is also out of the race, as is 2005 fourth place finisher Francisco Mancebo. With Armstrong retired, that means the top four riders from last year will be absent in 2006. Although 2005 fifth place finisher Alexandre Vinokourov has not been mentioned in Operación Puerto, his team has the most riders implicated. Tour organizers would like to send his entire team home. At the very least, several riders would be eliminated, putting Vinokourov at a disadvantage (the Tour organizers are not letting teams replace the suspended riders; they must compete shorthanded).

These shocking developments should benefit Americans Levi Leipheimer (sixth last year) and Floyd Landis (ninth last year). Their teams, along with Armstrong's former team, Discovery Channel, do not have any riders involved in the scandal (actually Landis' team has two, but neither were on the Tour's starting list). The entire character of the race will change because the teams of the favorites, especially T-Mobile and Basso's CSC, were expected to do most of the work to control the race. Now that burden will fall on other teams.

When Discovery Channel took over sponsorship of the U.S. Postal Service team, Armstrong promised them he would race one more Tour de France, either in 2005 or 2006. I am sure he is very happy that he chose 2005 and retired because the winner of this year's race will be qualified forever with "but he beat a weakened field." At this point, I can only hope that the evidence against these riders is rock solid. If they turn out to be wrongly accused, no judge can go back and award them a start in the race many have based their entire season around.

So where did the quote in the title of this post come from? That's what I said this morning when I read the headlines about Basso and Mancebo.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Consumer Reports Tests Folding Bikes

The August issue of Consumer Reports includes a brief test of five folding bicycles. Though there are many manufacturers of folders, they test one from each of the most popular brands. Their results and recommendations are incredibly the same as mine would be. And I didn't even get to ride any of the bikes.

They include folders from mainstream brands Trek and Giant in the test, but neither distinguishes itself. That is not surprising; the other manufacturers specialize in this type of bike, while Trek and Giant just added them to their product lines over the past few years. They probably sell a decent number to consumers who don't know about the better options on the market.

The Brompton C-Type C3E is recommended for people who plan to ride flat terrain and fold their bikes often. I concur, as long as you don't mind the $675 price tag for a bike of limited ability. Bromptons have a reputation for easy, compact folding, but their gearing and handling aren't the best. This is the only three-speed tested, but a model with more gears would be more expensive.

Bike Friday's claim to fame is that it rides like a regular bike. Consumer Reports tests the Stock Pocket Tourist (though more expensive than the others, it is Bike Friday's cheapest model) and agrees. Bike Friday's weakness as a folding bike is in the folding itself -- it's not the easiest or quickest to fold, and the result is not as compact as others. Though it is not the ideal commuter bike, it is a great travel bike. This is the only brand tested that could serve as an enthusiast's only bike. Bike Friday caters to that person, offering myriad customization options (at a price, of course).

Ultimately, Consumer Reports recommends the Dahon Speed D7. It is the least expensive bike tested, less than half the cost of a Bike Friday. It folds better than a Bike Friday but not as compactly as a Brompton. It performs a bit better than a Brompton but not as well as a Bike Friday. For a short-haul commuter bike that folds well, the Dahon is the best choice, and I say that despite being a biased Bike Friday owner. However, it is important to remember that just because the bikes all fold doesn't mean they are designed for the same purpose. If you want a bike that you can pack in a suitcase and fly to an out-of-town century ride (with no oversize charges), Bike Friday is one of the best you can buy, certainly the best one tested by Consumer Reports.

EGOogling Biking Illinois

Every month or so since my book came out, I have been Googling "Biking Illinois" to see what comes up. Though it seems like a total ego trip, searching the Internet has turned up some interesting stuff, including reviews I never knew were written. Here's what I found today:

  • My own site to promote the book is listed second by Google (Trailmonkey's Illinois Biking Homepage is first). Considering that "Biking Illinois" is a relatively broad phrase, that makes me very happy.
  • Peoria Journal Star outdoors columnist Jeff Lampe mentioned my book on June 6 in a collection of briefs. It only gets three sentences, but it's in the first paragraph.
  • Several Illinois libraries have my book in their collections, including Edwardsville, Glenview, and Winfield. I also learned that my Dewey Decimal System number is 796.6309773. I didn't know they went past three decimal places.
  • An e-mail acquaintance downstate posted a message about my book on SIU Cycling's message board (I knew that part). Someone from Murphysboro responded that he had bought the book (yay!) and was planning to do the two rides that start in Olive Branch at the foot of the state. Nowhere to go but up from there, I guess -- just work backward through the book.
  • My book is available all over the world. While it is tedious to scroll through all the bookstore links, it is pretty cool to see the book for sale on Japanese, Korean, Italian, and Dutch Web sites (and that doesn't include any of the Amazons -- France, Germany, et al). Of course, this is purely vanity; I don't expect any international sales for this type of book.
  • Unbeknownst to me, a long review of Biking Illinois apparently ran in the Lincoln Daily News on May 24. And best of all, it is positive (actually, no one has really criticized the book yet, at least in print). To my surprise, the review even mentions two road rides (more on that below).
  • And finally, it looks as though the copy of Biking Illinois that Doug Goodman of the Rockford Register Star used to write my first review was given away to a lucky reader one week later. On a very creepy note, the same article mentions that Carl Becker died on April 13. Fortunately, that was not my grandfather, but a different Carl Becker (though I realize as I write fortunately that those who knew the other Carl Becker would not agree).

One other item didn't make it online: a brief review in Chicago Athlete's June issue. My sole complaint about that review is that it focuses on the trail rides. I think the best part of my book, the part you can't find anywhere else, is the road rides. Those required much more research than the trails did, but thus far few people seem to appreciate them. I know a lot of people believe that roads are too dangerous for bicycling, but give these rides a chance. You probably won't see more than five cars on some of them.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

GOP or BPP?

I have a new nickname for the Republican Party: the Bad Penny Party (note: this has nothing to do with a certain Tribune columnist who wants to eliminate copper from our pockets). The Republicans deserve this new moniker because they keep resurrecting poor ideas, bringing them back to Capitol Hill or the White House just when most of us thought we had finally gotten rid of them.
  • Anti-flag burning constitutional amendment -- When was the last time, aside from stock news footage, that you even saw an American flag on fire? This is just faux-patriotic pandering to the ignorant masses out there who think "there oughta be a law" despite the Supreme Court's overturning of such laws on constitutional grounds. We don't need a law. Your dad/mom/brother/sister/son/daughter didn't die for a symbolic piece of fabric -- he/she died for the country it represents. Alas, the freedoms held dear by our Founding Fathers allow that fabric to be desecrated. But passing an amendment to protect the fabric would only desecrate the country it represents by restricting those freedoms (incidentally, the anti-penny columnist agrees).
  • Estate tax elimination -- The 99% of us who make less (much, much less) than the wealthiest Americans should be in favor of a progressive tax structure: essentially, let those who have the most pay the most. I see no problem with collecting a little extra from those who have fared so well in our capitalist system. The tax doesn't kick in until someone leaves behind more money than most of us will ever have, and even then estate planning reduces the government's share considerably. Family farms are rarely if ever affected, and only family businesses without good planning/structure get shut down because of it. The only reason there is any support for this is the great American myth -- a belief that if we work hard, someday we will be rich, and the laws benefiting the wealthy will benefit us. But those odds are pretty slim, and even if you were that rich, would you miss any of your money after you died? One would think the Bad Pennies, with their "ownership society" based on personal responsibility, would realize that this is just a tax on money the beneficiaries didn't earn in the first place.
  • Gay marriage constitutional amendment -- I thought this one would disappear after the 2004 election. Of course, I also thought someone would notice that Bush flip-flopped on the issue (in 2000 he said it was up to the states, then in 2004 he decided federal involvement was necessary), but virtually no one called him on it. Don't be surprised if this one comes up yet again before November. After all, it is the only sop the Bad Pennies have to offer their religious supporters.
I know there are Democrats in Congress who support some of these misguided measures, too. But the Democratic Party doesn't control anything in Washington these days -- the Bad Penny Party sets the agenda. And like a bad penny, their ideas keep turning up over and over.

UPDATE 06/28/2006 - Somehow I missed this before -- the Bad Penny Party actually has a name for all of their recycled ideas: "American Values Agenda." Ugh.

What's in a Name?

Though announcements of last minute line-up changes before the Tour de France generally aren't very interesting, I got a chuckle out of the biblical undertones in this story...
The Rabobank team yesterday announced its Tour squad with one adjustment to its initial plans: Bram de Groot replaces Thomas Dekker in the line-up... "This is our best possible team at this moment," team manager Erik Breukink said. "There were too many doubts concerning the condition of Thomas Dekker to take him to the Tour de France. Thomas had the same doubts."

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Bastard of the Day

According to an interview in the French sports newspaper L'Equipe, Greg LeMond, America's first Tour de France champion, has been "threatened" by Lance Armstrong, America's latest Tour de France champion. The two have been doing this crap for years. First LeMond makes vague accusations about Armstrong being chemically enhanced that sound like sour grapes from a diminished champion (not only has Armstrong won more Tours, but of course he is much more popular than LeMond ever was). Then Armstrong tells him to shut his mouth, sounding more like a pro wrestler than a pro cyclist. This exchange has played out several times over the last five years or so. LeMond is the conspiratorial whisperer, then Lance is the bully, then LeMond is the crybaby.

Enough already! Both were great Tour champions. Both overcame adversity (LeMond was shot in a hunting accident, and everyone knows Armstrong's story). And guess what? Now that Armstrong has retired, both are irrelevant has-beens as far as pro cycling goes. Their rivalry won't improve either of their legacies. For unsportsmanlike conduct and trash talk ad nauseum, Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong are Co-Bastards of the Day.

Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman first showed up on my radar when I saw Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota years ago in a bookstore. I once had relatives in North Dakota, though all have wisely abandoned that frigid land over the last two decades. That book isn't actually about Fargo so much as it is about growing up as a heavy metal fan in the 1980s. It looked interesting... but not interesting enough to purchase. It seemed perhaps too focused for my taste -- I liked some metal in the 1980s, but I liked a lot of other music, too. I made a note of it and even looked at it again several times over the years but never bought it.

When I saw Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story a few weeks ago, I instantly recognized the author as "the guy who wrote the Fargo heavy metal book that I didn't buy." This book seemed more my style: a road trip to visit places where famous rock stars died. On the surface, it was the sort of book I'd like to write. As I started reading, however, the book turned out to be more about Klosterman's past and present romantic relationships than dead musicians. That was okay, though. While the book lacks the factual depth I would have given my own version, it is written in a very engaging style by a "regular Midwestern guy" with whom I can identify on some level. Much is written about memories. Some stories seem familiar since we are of the same generation; it's amazing how life at one high school is similar to every other high school, no matter how unique you think yours is/was. Other tales are more fitting to a rock critic's lifestyle, though not excessively so (i.e., there's pot and coke, but it's not Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Naturally, Klosterman makes lots of musical references from many sub-genres of rock. Someone who isn't into music probably would have a hard time with this book. Although its focus is different from what I expected, I enjoyed it because I have taken so many long road trips (5,000+ miles) alone with my thoughts. And Killing Yourself to Live is really about those thoughts.

While the entire narrative is funny and entertaining, there are a few mini-essays interspersed that are brilliant. For example, Klosterman explains how every white male born after 1958 experiences Led Zeppelin the same way at some pivotal point in his life. The only thing I would add is that many men, once their "Zeppelin phase" (which lasts from days to years) is over, can't stand them anymore. I know I can't, and I think my brother feels the same way.

Late in the book, Klosterman waxes poetic about KISS. That must be a North Dakota thing -- the only KISS fan I ever knew was my cousin who grew up in Grand Forks and later Bismarck. Are there any KISS fans in Chicagoland? I've never met one. Regardless, I could identify with the absurd and hilarious way he matches members of the band to women in his life.

Killing Yourself to Live is a very quick read. I finished it in less than 24 hours, and I spent plenty of that time doing other things. Be forewarned that it's more of a memoir than a rock star death guidebook (if you are a publisher looking for the latter, let's talk). It is a road trip, but much of the book is about internal dialogue. Maybe I'll give Fargo Rock City another look now.

Note: The article Klosterman wrote for Spin magazine about the trip is still online here. Much of it is repeated verbatim in Killing Yourself to Live -- in fact, the article contains 90-95% of the book's "dead rock star" content (the book also has five solid pages about ten other dead rockers including Marc Bolan, Falco, Michael Hutchence, and Randy Rhoads).

Between the Bridge and the River by Craig Ferguson

Late night talk show host Craig Ferguson isn't new to writing, having crafted two entertaining screenplays in addition to writing for his television shows on both sides of the big pond. However, Between the Bridge and the River is his first novel. When my wife and I saw Ferguson do stand-up comedy a few weeks ago, we recognized many gags cribbed from his expansive TV monologues. While a few familiar concepts show up on these pages (such as bloodsucking Hollywood agents), this book is essentially all new material.

My first impression of the book was that it's rather, as Ferguson would say, naughty. Blunt and graphic depictions of sex pop up everywhere. Though my mother might enjoy certain aspects of the book, I'd be a little embarrassed to lend it to her. It's also pretty darn weird, jumping backward and forward in time, shifting freely between reality and dreamland, and spanning two continents. There are many references to pop culture, psychology, and literature, and of course it's funny -- I wouldn't expect anything else from such a twisted mind. But the real treat here is the subject matter. The novel explores religion in surprising depth, ranging from corrupt televangelists to snake handlers to Hollywood fads (thinly veiled references to Scientology) to a genuine near-death/born-again experience and ultimately to true goodness boiled down to two words.

Somewhere along the way, the book went from weird to fascinating, and I was disappointed to find myself approaching the end. The characters were so bizarre and interesting that I wasn't ready to say goodbye to them. Ferguson ties up enough loose ends to satisfy while leaving enough unspoken to intrigue. I'm not sure whether it would appeal to all of his viewers (according to Amazon comments, it does not), but I found Between the Bridge and the River both thoughtful and entertaining.

Faulty Anti-Helmet Logic

I don't often debate the value of wearing a bicycle helmet, so I was caught off-guard by an argument I heard in Davenport, Iowa earlier this month. Someone said he doesn't wear a helmet because bicycle helmets are only certified for x mph, and he rides faster than that (he stated a number, but the value of x is not really important to this discussion). I was thinking about that statement today, and there are two obvious flaws in this logic:
  1. The assumption that a helmet certified at x mph is completely useless at (x + 1) mph. I don't have data to back this up, but I doubt that a helmet's effectiveness immediately drops to zero at speeds higher than the certification testing speed. One would expect a declining curve of some sort.
  2. The assumption that an accident will occur at cruising speed. Most accidents occur at intersections. If the cyclist is braking as he approaches or accelerating from a stop, he is much more likely to be traveling within the speed range of the helmet's certification. A corollary assumption is that the cyclist will not notice a hazardous situation and slow down before reaching it, which is rather unlikely for an attentive rider.

Helmets are not mandatory for Illinois (or Iowa) bicyclists. Each rider is free to evaluate the benefits and risks, then choose accordingly. But if someone tells you not to bother with a helmet just because you ride faster than the speed for which the helmet was certified, don't accept that faulty logic.

Wycliff Finally Takes a Stand

As the Chicago Tribune's Public Editor, Don Wycliff struck me as a mealy-mouthed milquetoast. His examinations of the newspaper's coverage on behalf of readers inevitably played both sides and rarely drew a meaningful conclusion. Maybe he didn't want to piss off his bosses. Maybe he had too many friends at the Trib to properly critique the paper. Of course, the Farm Aid debacle was the best example, but it was consistent with his non-stance regarding other stories as well. His public editor columns made me want to shake him by the shoulders and shout, "Will you please pick a side?!"

Wycliff teaches media criticism at Notre Dame now, and the Tribune recently published his commentary, "The impenetrable fog of Bill O'Reilly." I was shocked to see Wycliff take an aggressive position, the first I've ever seen under his byline. One might think I am making a point of this simply because he skewers one of the media figures I hate the most, and I did relish that aspect. But as long as Wycliff actually stands for something in his commentary, I will probably enjoy reading it.

O'Reilly predictably took great offense to having someone call him on the games he plays. When Clarence Page went on The O'Reilly Factor to defend Wycliff's position (Wycliff apparently canceled at the last minute), Mr. "We don't do personal attacks on this show" was apoplectic, repeatedly referring to Wycliff as a coward. Way to take the high road, Bill. For what it's worth, Page did a good job of defending Wycliff while skewering O'Reilly. Naturally, O'Reilly spent more time dissing Wycliff than he did honestly refuting Wycliff's contentions.

If you can bear to watch Fox's most obnoxious commentator , click here to see his "debate" with Page (there is no such thing as real debate on The O'Reilly Factor, but this comes close). Most amusing is the way O'Reilly goes back two years to cite an example of himself criticizing the government's approach in Iraq (Wycliff had called him a "cheerleader" for the administration). Be sure to read the Media Matters commentary (O'Reilly loves to call them a "far left wing smear site"), which demonstrates that O'Reilly's arguments and denials are pure "bull," to use his own word against him.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Idiot of the Day

I am toning down my Bastard of the Day award today since this woman lost her husband. He was shot by police at a Dominick's grocery store. According to the Chicago Tribune:
As one officer detained an unidentified woman near the checkout lines, three tried to detain [James] King, who was described as 6 feet, 2 inches, tall and almost 400 pounds. One officer sprayed him with mace, and another got one handcuff on him before King withdrew a 9mm semiautomatic handgun, police said. Three of the officers "left the immediate scene," [Supt. Philip] Cline said, leaving one to fend off King. That officer shot and killed King in a shooting police have judged to be within department guidelines.
(A Chicago Sun-Times account says that this was all captured on the store's security cameras and mentions a detail omitted by the Tribune: that King not only drew but pointed his gun at the officer who then shot him.) Obviously, the three cops who left one alone to subdue this large man screwed up. One cannot imagine how they could possibly justify their actions. Two were probationary officers (first 18 months on the job), so they were fired. The third has been suspended for now and may be fired later. But the Idiot of the Day is widow Audrey King:
King's family said the father of two might be alive if the three officers had stayed to do their jobs. "It's devastating," said his wife, Audrey. "They were trained to handle situations like that. They're supposed to be professionals."
Your husband might be alive if he hadn't pulled a freaking gun on a police officer who was trying to arrest him! Sure, the police are "supposed to be professionals," but citizens aren't supposed to point guns at them! For that matter, who is to say that the situation would have played out differently with four officers instead of one? Is there a certain number of police who need to be present to discourage a person from drawing a gun on them? Maybe James King told Audrey, "You know, if there's just one cop, I'm gonna try to shoot him. But if four cops are there, I'll go quietly." Blaming the police for your husband's death after he draws a weapon on them in a grocery store is utterly ridiculous. The police are professionals, and they are trained to counter deadly force with... deadly force.

I'm sorry that Audrey will have to raise those two kids alone. But maybe their father should have thought about that before he pulled out his handgun. She has no right to fault the police for his death.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Pluto News

The International Astronomical Union has chosen Nix and Hydra as the names for the new moons of Pluto. The two moons were discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope last year. But the bigger news is found later in the article:
This summer, the IAU will debate whether Pluto should remain a planet. The discovery of an icy object slightly larger than Pluto in the Kuiper Belt last year reinvigorated the argument over whether to demote Pluto or add other planets. (emphasis and link added)
This is huge. Imagine all the books, textbooks, and trivia games that would have to be updated if Pluto were to lose its status. The vast majority of people on Earth today (excepting those born before 1930) have always "known" that there are nine planets in the solar system, and now that could change. On the bright side, at least demoting Pluto would eliminate the confusion about the planets' order from the Sun (Pluto's eccentric orbit makes it closer to the Sun than Neptune sometimes).

The IAU won't be asking me, but I would vote against Pluto as a planet. It doesn't fit in with the gaseous outer planets, the inclination and eccentricity of its orbit are peculiar, and it is small (half the diameter of Mercury). The Kuiper Belt contains a lot of similar objects, so what makes this oddball Pluto important enough to be a planet? I suppose one could argue that having moons elevates its status -- I don't know if any other objects in the Kuiper Belt have satellites. It will be interesting to see what the IAU decides.

On a personal note, we drove through Burdett, KS on our recent vacation. While turning the car around at the edge of town, I happened upon a historical marker noting that Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, grew up and went to high school there. Of course, as a proud Illinoisan, I prefer to remember Tombaugh's birthplace, Streator, IL.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Why I Shouldn't Be a Boss

I was in a bookstore yesterday with a friend who was recently promoted into a hiring-and-firing position. This book caught my eye: The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. I suggested he give copies to subordinates as Christmas gifts just to stir things up a little.

I managed to spend two hours browsing without buying anything, which is quite an accomplishment for me in a bookstore. I was very tempted to purchase I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You've Ever Heard, but I'll wait until I finish a few of the books I already have.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Lyrics of the Day

I've been meaning to write about these lyrics for a long time. They have always struck me as hilarious. From Ozzy Osbourne's first solo album, Blizzard of Ozz (1980), "I Don't Know:"

People look to me and say
Is the end near, when is the final day?
What's the future of mankind?
How do I know, I got left behind

Everyone goes through changes
Looking to find the truth
Don't look at me for answers
Don't ask me -- I don't know

Whenever I hear this song, I wonder, Who is so messed up that he or she would be asking Ozzy for the answers to life's big questions?!?!? Okay, so he did some good songs with Black Sabbath, and he wasn't as nutty in 1980 as he is today, but still...

I want to meet the person who inspired the Ozz Man to write this song. Or maybe I don't.

Strange Bedfellows

New advertising slogan:
Pig out... Slim down... Nestle
Reaching new heights in hedging bets, Swiss food and drink giant Nestle announced today that it will acquire Jenny Craig, Inc. later this year. Whichever way the diet pendulum swings, Nestle has it covered. Should a personal crisis bring on a round of binge eating, Nestle will happily sell you chocolates. But if you've already had more than your share, Nestle will help you lose the weight. And once you slim down, maybe you'd like some chocolates...

(Note: Nestle isn't the first to do this -- Unilever owns both Ben & Jerry's and Slim Fast.)

The Man With the Hardest Job in America

Michael Gerson is leaving his job. Though few knew his name, his words have been widely disseminated. Over the past six years, he has served as George W. Bush's speechwriter. In other words, his job was to make our Mispronouncer-in-Chief sound presidential.

Former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet discusses Gerson's legacy at TNR Online. He notes that in 2000 Bush's reputation as a public speaker was lacking, and his countless gaffes imposed limitations on his speechwriters: "...[F]ew listeners would have believed that he would naturally speak in complex sentences, use long words, or quote from an array of famous writers and thinkers."

Not every speechwriter acknowledges his/her employer's weaknesses and works within them. Kusnet mentions that Dan Quayle's speeches included quotes from Albert Einstein and the Talmud, which were comically incongruous with the way Quayle was seen by the masses -- he was not believable as a well-read man.
Wisely, Gerson did what speechwriters are supposed to do: He created the best possible plausible voice for his boss. With Gerson's texts, Bush speaks in short sentences, using simple words that are easily uttered and understood.
The trouble with Gerson, however, is that Bush's speeches have become legendary for candy-coating and outright deception. I suppose Karl Rove wouldn't have it any other way, so it isn't really Gerson's fault. But people look back on the speeches Gerson wrote and note that his words contradicted the Bush administration's actions.
[Bush] presented policies that would benefit a privileged few as if they were intended to help women, minorities, and the poor; and he embedded his most controversial policies (the Iraq war, tax cuts for the rich) in the most popular initiatives (the fight against terrorism, tax cuts for the middle class). As his presidency has dragged on, these disconnects have become more and more glaring.
I could cite a dozen more examples, as could anyone who has been paying attention for the past six years. One might expect me to name Gerson as "Bastard of the Day" for engaging in Rovian doublespeak. But I admire his skill too much for that. He not only accepted and worked within the constraints of his speaker's abilities, but he made his speaker look good in the process. And it's not easy to "dumb down" one's writing into clear, concise language. Look at how many authors fail in deceptively simple genres such as children's books. It takes a special kind of intellect to write below one's normal comprehension level. As a speechwriter, Gerson has been a true craftsman, regardless of how his words have provided cover for incredibly bad policies.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

When Life Gives You Lemons...

...make Italian ice. Or better yet, order some of the best on the planet.

My wife was patroling at Puerto Rican Fest in Humboldt Park this weekend. I needed the car to go see my dad and granddad in the suburbs on Father's Day, so I drove her down there this afternoon. She was going to get a ride home from a co-worker.

I was on my way home this evening when I got the phone call I didn't want: her co-worker had gone home sick, so could I pick her up? I briefly considered the ramifications of telling her to take a bus, but then I resigned myself to driving back down there to get her. The timing was lousy, too -- I could go home for half an hour, or I could screw around for a while and go straight to Humboldt Park. I opted for screwing around. After killing some time in a bookstore (note: Barnes & Noble is open an hour later (10 PM) on Sunday than Borders), I decided to take surface streets because the expressway would get me there too fast.

I still had extra time as I drove east on North Avenue (IL 64) toward Humboldt Park. As I passed through the suburb of Elmwood Park, I found a way to spend that time. Although it was 10:30 on a Sunday night, the legendary Johnnie's Beef was open for business.

Johnnie's has been around so long that my dad used to go there before I was born. And the line still runs out the door and down the street. I got lucky tonight; there were only half a dozen people in front of me. I had intended to order only an Italian ice, that lemony, sweet treat of finely crushed ice. Maybe just a small. But as I watched one employee serving up overflowing large ices and another preparing an Italian beef sandwich, my appetite grew and my order expanded.

Service was impressive. My beef and my ice were handed to me as quickly as I could pay for my order. So don't be intimidated by the long lines; these guys work quickly. I sat at a table outside (there is only a stand-up counter inside) and enjoyed my meal. I'm afraid it's been several years since I indulged at Johnnie's, an error I should not repeat. The beef was as good as I remembered. Johnnie's doesn't serve the thickest sandwich, but it is surely one of the tastiest. And the Italian ice was even better, dare I say the nectar of the Roman gods. My only regret is that perhaps I should have had the beef/sausage combo instead. Next time.

As I ate, I recalled that I was wearing a T-shirt from the other not-to-be-missed Elmwood Park eatery, Russell's Barbecue. Incidentally, both restaurants now have locations in the northwest suburbs as well -- Johnnie's in Arlington Heights and Russell's in Rolling Meadows.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Spare Tire Blues

I set the alarm for 5:45 AM today. It's a beautiful, sunny morning with a light, cool breeze. I was supposed to get up and go for a bike ride, but instead here I am upstairs on the laptop. I really need to get back into a riding routine to get in shape again, but you know what? In spite of all the things Mayor Daley has done to improve biking in the City of Chicago, I still don't enjoy it. Not even when I'm up and out the door before the traffic. Every street I even think about riding, all I remember is what a pain in the ass it is. Parallel-parked cars. Stop signs every block. Narrow lanes. Jerk motorists. Potholes. Damn it, there was a time when I at least tolerated city riding. But that was years ago, and now I just can't seem to drag my sorry ass back out on the streets.

Incidentally, the alarm interrupted a very rare good night's sleep. I suppose I'll just chalk up today in the "L" column and go back to bed.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Playing With Trains by Sam Posey

I'm not a model railroader, although I've peered into that world with curiosity on occasion. When I picked up this book, my thought was actually about whether a friend had seen it. Then the author's name caught my attention. Yes, it's that Sam Posey, former race car driver and sportscaster. If you ever wondered what Posey did in the winter when there weren't any races, here is the answer: he was becoming a fanatical model railroader. I put the book down, but minutes later I found myself with only two books picked out for Borders' "3 for the price of 2" sale. Since that made Playing With Trains ostensibly free, I decided to check it out.

This book was more interesting than I expected, particularly as a non-railroader. The first part of the book is largely autobiographical. Posey tells about his first trains (and his mom's wiring ability), then skips ahead to his son's birth. Having a son meant he had someone to build a layout with, and Posey describes how the basement transformed into the HO-scale Colorado Midland railroad over the years. Since I just returned from a vacation through the Midland's region (in fact, I hiked part of its former right-of-way overlooking Buena Vista), this was especially exciting for me.

There were some amusing passages in this book. While Posey tried to authentically recreate the scenery of the Midland's prime years, he added one distinctly out-of-place building: a Newman's Own bottling plant. He knew Paul Newman through racing, and his wife, an artist, was designing Newman's labels at the time. Since Newman's Own seemed so very good (i.e., donating their profits to charity), Posey decided to make the company bad in his layout. He had them polluting a stream while workers lay passed out among empty beer bottles. Product testers occupied graves behind the plant, and an HO-scale Newman lookalike played ping pong, oblivious to his company's misdeeds.

After his own layout is finished, Posey writes about aspects of the hobby. In Milwaukee, he visits Walthers, the biggest wholesale model railroading supplier in the country (their catalog contains 80,000 items). In nearby Waukesha, he goes to the offices of Model Railroader magazine. Then he meets prominent hobbyists throughout the country. It is fascinating to read about their eccentric personalities and differing approaches to the hobby. Some are obsessed with operations -- they run their model like a real railroad on a strict timetable. Should a train fall behind, it gets shunted to a siding to allow on-time trains to pass first. Other railroaders care little about operations and focus on scenery instead. As artists, they strive to create or recreate a perfect environment. They obsess about details like adding rust to steel structures and black soot to tunnel ceilings.

Next Posey looks at the future of the hobby and voices concern about the ever-advancing average age of model railroaders. Around 33 years old in 1970, the average modeler is in his 50s now. The last few chapters include several train-related stories tied together, including a ride on Amtrak's Silver Meteor (much like the Silver Star that I rode to Savannah to begin my cross-country bike tour). He is disappointed that the passenger train has lost the magic it had in his youth. Then he describes a dream assignment from Road & Track: he got to "test drive" a steam locomotive for the magazine's April Fools issue.

Thanks to Posey's engaging style and enthusiasm, Playing With Trains is a quick read that offers great insight into the hobby. As I was reading this book, my wife kept saying it was okay if I wanted to build a layout in our basement. My interest isn't strong enough for that, plus I lack the manual dexterity and patience to fashion a miniature world out of diminutive building materials. Just the same, I recommend Playing With Trains to experienced model railroaders and the HO-curious alike.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Lyrics of the Day

Today's selection comes from the last song I heard in my rented Chevy Malibu tonight on the way back to the Moline Motel 6 from the Borders in Davenport -- "A World of Hurt" by the Drive-By Truckers from their latest album, A Blessing and a Curse:
The secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits
Better roll them now before something else goes wrong
I should have rolled the credits this morning after I finished signing books for the Grand Illinois Trail and Parks (GITAP) riders. It's not that the rest of the day went badly, just that the happy ending came and went too early.

Bob Morgan and I were at our table in Borders from 7 PM to 9:15 PM. We were encouraged by the employee who told us this was already his store's third order of our books. I signed a couple of books, and Bob signed three or four. Some people talked to us for five minutes and walked away. Some goofy old codger talked to Bob about everything under the sun, including how he was turning 76 next week. And to think I feel old at 36. Anyway, after a steady stream for a very brief time, the well ran dry. We got hardly a look for the next 90 minutes, even though our table was right by the entrance.

Two things saved the evening. One was talking politics (for lack of a better word) with Bob. It is so refreshing to have a conversation with someone who perceives many things the way I do. We were practically finishing each other's sentences. My favorite part was hearing how Bob stood up at a political rally against the estate tax when a politician claimed it had to be abolished to save the farms of the people in the audience. Bob asked, "How many people here intend to leave an estate worth more than $2 million?" No one answered, but the politician started to get mad. Bob said, "Then guess what? The estate tax doesn't affect any of you!" The politician continued on as if Bob never existed, but I hope some of the audience recognized this great myth being told about the estate tax: while Republicans claim that families are forced to sell their farms because of the estate tax, it just isn't so:
Despite oft-repeated claims that the estate tax has dire consequences for family farms and small businesses, there is in fact very little evidence that it has an outsize impact on these groups. Indeed, the American Farm Bureau Federation acknowledged to the New York Times that it could not cite a single example of a farm having to be sold to pay estate taxes.
Earlier in the day we had discussed unsustainability and water issues in the West and the High Plains. Usually I'm either arguing or educating about such topics, so it was nice to hear some agreement for once. Now if only we could convince enough people to overthrow the current regime (just for starters).

The other thing that saved the night was the huge stack of books that the Borders guy had us sign. I read somewhere that authors should sign as many copies of their books as possible because once they are signed, they cannot be returned. If that is true, I effectively sold dozens of books at the Davenport Borders tonight. I had to laugh when the employee said he was going to put them on the Father's Day gift table. My father hasn't been on a bike in decades!

Total sales for the day: 17 copies sold personally, two copies sold at Borders. Considering that I sold 84% of those books before 8:15 AM, perhaps I should have rolled the credits then. It was a fun experience being a celebrity author for a day though, and at least the GITAP sales covered my motel, gas, car rental, meals, etc. I'm not getting rich, but I can live with breaking even.

My First Television Interview

The Biking Illinois media juggernaut continues...

I'm glad my morning signing went so well because the lunchtime event at the Midwest Writing Center (MWC) was underwhelming. Only a handful of people showed up, most of them affiliated with the MWC. Although we had an interesting discussion about trails, I only sold one book. Damn. Looks like I'll be lugging a couple of boxes back home. Of course, it didn't exactly help when Bob Morgan (Biking Iowa) announced that our books are much cheaper at Amazon.com. I wanted to slap him! Sure they are, but I can make a whole lot more money selling a book myself than I can from a royalty! I wonder if he'll have the nerve to say that at Borders tonight...

Bob and I ate lunch together afterward. I was disappointed with the adjective in my meal. It said "baked ham and swiss cheese sandwich." I thought the sandwich was baked so it would be warm and the cheese would be melted, but no, only the ham was baked. Oh well, for a plain old deli sandwich, it was pretty good.

Bob followed me to the WQPT studios on the campus of Black Hawk College in Moline. Perspective host Susan McPeters interviewed us for half an hour about our books. Bob clearly has more TV experience, plus he's a real talker. It was hard to get a word in, although McPeters managed to direct some questions to me. Not that I deserved the air time -- I'm a lousy speaker anyway. At least I had answers for her questions, even if I didn't elucidate very well. The time passed quickly, mercifully. I'm sure I sucked, but I'm also pretty sure I wasn't as awful as I think I was. If you live in the Quad Cities, you can find out for yourself next weekend -- the episode debuts on my mom's birthday, June 23. Or you could even buy a copy of the show, but I'd rather sell you a book.

My First Book Signing Plus New Signings

I had a very receptive audience this morning at the Grand Illinois Trail and Parks ride. Today is a rest day in the midst of their week-long bicycle tour of northern Illinois. Although I had dreamed of selling more, I was happy to sign and sell 16 copies of Biking Illinois. Many riders took business cards, so I hope they will make a purchase later. A lot of them are from bike clubs, so maybe they will tell fellow members about my book, too. The legendary Mike Bentley of Mike's Mega Bicycle Links fame was there, so I got to thank him for the back cover blurb. I met many enthusiastic cyclists, plus I covered my expenses for the trip. That means the noon and evening signings will be all profit.

I have also scheduled two more signings in the Chicago area in August. The first will be Thursday, August 10 at the Borders in Orland Park. The second will be Wednesday, August 16 at the Borders in Lincoln Village, which is at the northern edge of Chicago. I won't be signing at any North Shore Borders this summer, so I hope to lure northern suburbanites to Lincoln Village (free parking!). Both signings are at 7:30 PM. These events are also listed on my Web site.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Pioneering Snobs Shake Loose Aurora Albatross

Prestbury, located along Illinois 56 west of Aurora, was probably the first obnoxiously upscale subdivision in the Aurora area when it was created about 30 years ago. They have private streets to keep out the unwashed masses. Signs along the recreational Virgil L. Gilman Trail warn passers-by that the adjacent parks are not for hoi polloi.

The elitist residents were surely chafed that their mailing address for all those years was Aurora, a city associated with gang violence and shuttered factories. Their prayers were answered this weekend when the subdivision's mail delivery was shifted from Aurora to Sugar Grove, a quiet but growing town to the west.
Proponents of the plan argued that losing the Aurora address would significantly lower residents' auto insurance rates and possibly increase their home values. Opponents said the change would be more hassle than it was worth and would send a message that Prestbury residents were snobs who didn't want to be associated with Aurora's blue-collar reputation.
Yes, I'm sure those Prestburians were having a hard time paying for car insurance for their BMWs. Boo hoo. I agree with the opponents' viewpoint. And since I used to live nearby, I know it's true.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Biking Illinois Update

I added a page for upcoming events and appearances to BikingIllinois.com.

This Thursday I will be in the Quad Cities area for a long day of signing books. I'll start with a breakfast visit to the Grand Illinois Trail And Parks (GITAP) bike tour at Augustana College in Rock Island. At lunchtime I'll be at the Midwest Writing Center in Davenport with Biking Iowa author Bob Morgan. In the afternoon we are going to discuss various bicycling issues on a show for WQPT-TV. Then we will sign books at Borders in Davenport at 7 PM.

The other scheduled events so far are in July. On July 14-15 I will sign at several Borders stores in central Illinois, including Champaign, Normal, and Peoria. Closer to home, on July 20 I will be at The Book Cellar's Local Author Night just a few blocks away.

In other news, last Sunday my book was briefly reviewed in the Chicago Tribune's Travel section. Although the review seems to focus on the first ten pages of the book, I'm happy to get the exposure. With more newspaper coverage to come in the near future, Biking Illinois is gaining momentum as summer finally arrives.

The Irony

I received this e-mail today:
We are the team of young, initiative and vigorous people. We would like to devote ourselves to the struggle against spam-technologies. We are going to develop a unique self-learning program complex, based on the technology of AI neural algorithms, intended for the purposes of struggle against spam. However we do not have enough money to rent an office, buy the necessary equipment, laptops, personal computers, servers, the necessary software, to hire employees. We ask you to help us to start our struggle against a spam. You can donate some money for our basic needs on our accounts: (account info deleted).
Wow, imagine these young, vigorous people wanting to devote themselves to fighting unsolicited commercial e-mails. And of course, sending an unsolicited e-mail requesting money is exactly the way to get started. Nice try, guys. Next time say you're Nigerian.

Bastard of the Day

Today's bastard is Ann Coulter, for all the usual reasons. She has just published another ridiculous screed of anti-left tripe, which she is promoting on TV. To say her writing is filled with half-truths would be far too generous. Although a few conservatives have wisely distanced themselves from her over the years, an amazing number support and defend her insipid statements.

When Lou Dobbs recently called her "the opposite of Michael Moore," Coulter had the audacity to respond
I think I am the right-wing [H.L.] Mencken, the right-wing Mark Twain. I am not the right-wing Michael Moore.
Personally, I think comparing her to Michael Moore is rather complimentary -- at least Moore's films provoke thought and conversation, whereas Coulter's rants on paper and television are simply shrill attacks that leave no room for debate. But Mencken or Twain? Coulter lacks the wit, nuance, and insight of either legendary social commentator. Those men were adept at observing our culture and reflecting our absurdities back to us, but Coulter just spouts the standard party line, relying on the occasional bluntly offensive statement to draw attention to herself. And unlike Mencken or Twain, she will be scarcely remembered, much less oft-quoted, after she is gone.

Coulter has alleged in the past that liberals want to rape her. Don't flatter yourself, dear. We may want to see you bound and gagged, but only so we don't have to listen to you anymore.

Monday, June 05, 2006

June: Time to Buy a Ski Mask

A Chicago Tribune article tells how state police are using a photo radar system to nail speeders in the Dan Ryan Expressway construction project.
The 45 m.p.h. construction-zone limit is in effect around the clock, although under state law, the photo-radar vans are allowed to operate only when work is being done. Speed will be enforced by regular patrols at other times, officials said.
The 24-hour construction speed limit is the most ridiculous practice on Illinois highways. I could swear this wasn't always the case -- I seem to remember long ago seeing signs that said "when workers present" or something to that effect. In recent years, the state legislature has increased fines to a minimum of $375 for speeding tickets in construction zones, claiming that their goal is to prevent workers from being hurt. But if the speed limit and fines are always in force, how can they claim it is to protect the workers who are home in their beds? Virtually any sober, alert driver can safely drive well over 65 m.p.h. past a line of jersey barriers, barrels, or cones. Any $375 ticket written while no work is being done is simply revenue for the state -- the enforcement serves little useful purpose. In fact, having a reduced speed all the time only trivializes it. When I see lights flashing or message boards saying that workers are present, I pay attention. When I see an orange 45 m.p.h. sign, I just get annoyed (for example, one night around 1 AM I drove 15 miles on I-88 in rural Illinois on a one-lane road with a 45 m.p.h. speed limit and never even saw another car going in my direction.

The article provides useless information tagged on the end about fatalities in construction zones:
There were 26 deaths, including one construction worker, in work-zone accidents in Illinois last year. Thirty-nine fatalities, two of them workers, occurred in work zones in 2004. In 2003, 44 people were killed in work areas, five of them workers.
What makes this information useless? There is no mention of whether speed was an issue in any of those deaths. Without causality, how can readers assess the importance or value of speed limit enforcement?

Okay, now here is where the ski masks come in:
Under state legislation passed in 2004, tickets will not be issued if the photograph of the driver's face is not clear.
So there you go, folks. If they can't figure out who you are, they won't send you a ticket!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Rethinking the Vespa Scooter

No, this isn't about rising gas prices. This is about respect. Check out this photo from the Museo Piaggio in Pontedera, Italy (not far from Pisa and Florence). I'll bet SUV drivers would think twice before cutting off someone on one of those Vespas!